The future of Europe — this month’s Global Minnesota Great Decisions dialogue — will be shaped in part by three key elections this year.

In the Netherlands next week, France next month, and Germany next fall, voters vexed by problems convulsing the continent — sclerotic economies, eurozone instability, Russian aggression and other chronic challenges — will choose between populists and politicians committed to the European Union.

And adding to the uncertainty is President Trump, who has had to recently reassure the world of the U.S. commitment to NATO after earlier terming the alliance “obsolete.”

“The whole texture of relations within the European Union may now change with the election of Trump and the uncertainty of the security guarantee,” said Hans Kundnani, senior transatlantic fellow for the German Marshall Fund. Kundnani, in Minneapolis this week to speak on “Europe in the era of Trump,” said in an interview that the president is a “game changer” on a number of European issues, including the implementation of last year’s European bellwether, Brexit.

“The uncertainty of the security guarantee means that the U.K. cannot afford acrimonious negotiations” to exit the union, Kundnani said, adding that, “Until now military power wasn’t a factor in E.U. relations,” but now, “suddenly military power is looked at in a very different way.”

That’s not just because of mixed signals from Washington, but increasingly clear intent from Moscow, where Russian revanchism has meant military provocations and election meddling across the continent.

“I think the West has let its guard down totally about Russia,” said András Simonyi, a former Hungarian ambassador to the U.S. and to NATO. Simonyi, now managing director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University, was in Minneapolis this week along with Daniel Hamilton, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for European affairs who is executive director of the center, to launch “Nordic Ways,” a book of essays about the Nordic model.

Scandinavian nations’ governance can be an antidote to European malaise and Moscow’s malevolence, both experts stressed.

“The Nordic countries are a threat to Russia, but not strategically,” Simonyi said. “The real threat to Mr. Putin is the example of how hard-core democracies can cope with challenges.”

These Nordic nations, Simonyi added, “are the stem cells of liberal democracies. It’s not a solution to everything, but the genetic code to what is there to preserve and protect, and what is there to grow new cells in which you can turn the tide.”

Turning the tide on the anti-E.U. wave won’t be as easy in non-Nordic nations.

“Populism is not an isolated phenomenon,” said Hamilton. “The Europeans are seeing very similar challenges with populist pressures. … Europe has been facing a whole slew of really challenging issues, so I think that these elections are an orientation point to where Europe is.”

And yet despite — or perhaps because of — U.S. and U.K. election outcomes the center may indeed hold.

“Because of Brexit and because of Trump I think you are seeing a little bit of backlash” against populism, Hamilton said.

And in fact, in Germany the surge isn’t for the right-wing Alternative for Germany movement, but for the left-leaning Social Democrats led by former European Union President Martin Schulz.

“One reason Schulz is getting some of his lift is the Germans are looking across the Atlantic and they look at Brexit and they don’t want that,” Hamilton added.

And in France, while right-wing National Front leader Marine Le Pen may pin down a first-round voting lead, Emmanuel Macron — a “center-left investment banker who believes in Europe,” according to Hamilton — will probably prevail.

Should Schulz and Macron win it creates “the chance of having a Franco-German grand bargain to solve a lot of Europe’s problems,” Kundnani said. But, he added, new strains between Berlin and Washington may emerge since Schulz may not increase NATO expenditures at the same pace promised by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

This potential move toward the middle doesn’t mean that the populist pulse coursing through the continent isn’t affecting campaigns. Geert Vilder’s views on immigration, for instance, have nudged the Netherlands debate rightward in advance of the March 15 parliamentary elections.

Of course if Brexit and Trump’s triumph taught anything, it was the uncertainty of outcomes in such a volatile environment. Any one of the three plebiscites could mean it’s still surf’s up for the populist wave.

But buffeted by instability in the south, uncertainty from the west, and aggression from the east — as well as a northern model that works — there may be at least a temporary, temperate pause as voters across the continent consider the center.

 

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.

 

Once a month, the theme of this column is determined by the “Great Decisions” dialogue on foreign policy, conducted in partnership with the nonprofit citizen engagement organization Global Minnesota. Want to join the conversation? Go to globalminnesota.org.