The Brexit result of the UK referendum came amidst an unprecedented inflow of migrants and refugees and fomented Europhobia across Europe.
As the European Union plunged into crisis mode, far-right and populist leaders whose parties are on the rise in many EU member states predicted the Union’s demise. Joining them on their path were the populist and conservative government of the newest EU member states in Central and Eastern Europe.
Before the EU could digest the news that Britain voted to leave the European Union and before any clear procedure has been outlined as to how and when this will happen, there are many new challenges on the horizon.
The challenges are both external and internal in origin.
For instance, the government of Turkey, following the failed coup d’état, appears to have toughened its stance with the EU. The agreement between Ankara and Brussels as regards the refugee and migrant wave is now in jeopardy since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is insisting on demands concerning European funds and visa-free travel for Turks. The situation is not an easy one. On the one hand, EU leaders must show they are unwavering in their decisions and they will not bow to any type of blackmail. On the other hand, a new wave of refugees from Turkey to Europe would be catastrophic.
Meanwhile, the upcoming Austrian presidential election poses a serious threat to social cohesion in the European Union. Should the far-right candidate win, Austria would become the first EU member state with an openly anti-EU head of state.
But even though it is quite certain that Austria would never abandon the EU, a move to the far-right would have immediate political consequences. The impact would be felt in many EU member states.
Such a turn of events would reinforce the already strong far-right and populist parties in France, Italy and the Netherlands among others. It would also serve to embolden the rhetoric of the Eurosceptic governments in Central and Eastern Europe.
One case in point is Hungary, which will hold a referendum in October to challenge the EU’s plan requiring EU member states to participate in the distribution of refugees. The fact that the referendum is being backed by the government increases the likelihood that a majority of voters will reject the EU refugee quota.
Hungary is already a hostile place for refugees and migrants, and not only. Anti-Roma and anti-Semitic sentiment is widespread and openly expressed by the pro-government media.
But an anti-quota result in the referendum will also reinforce Europhobic elements in other EU member states.
Another case is Italy. Officially, its referendum concerns the constitutional changes proposed by the government. In reality, however, there is much more on the line.
On the one hand, Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has tied the result of the referendum with his political future by announcing he will resign if the reforms are rejected. On the other hand, the far-right Northern League party and the populist Five Star Movement are investing on a negative outcome, transforming the referendum into a European matter. Since Italy is trying to play a leading role in the EU, on the side of Germany and France (as the Vendotene mini-summit suggests), the rejection of the referendum could spell political defeat for the Italian PM. It is not difficult to understand why a political crisis in Italy would be catastrophic these days.
This autumn will be full of challenges for the EU. Any negative result either connected to refugee flow either with an open anti-European act in member states will be a blow to the EU at a time when the Union is facing one of its most difficult and painful tests.