Europe’s multiple crises have become the stuff of legend. They dominate the headlines, cast a dark shadow over the EU’s daily life, make EU leaders squirm in discomfort and colour the bloc’s relations with the rest of the world.
Where to begin? There’s the continuing eurozone crisis, with Greece still being squeezed on all fronts, Spain and Portugal struggling to make ends meet and the rest of the currency zone mired in stagnation.
There’s high unemployment across the bloc, with jobless rates over 50 per cent for young people in Spain.
There’s the continuing influx of refugees and migrants seeking to escape war and conflict in the Middle East, Afghanistan and many African countries. And the surge in refugee numbers has in turn triggered an increase in support for far right parties.
And then there’s Brexit. As Britain goes to the polls on June 23 to vote for leaving or staying in the EU, the Brexit debate looms large not just over Britain but also over the rest of the EU.
The discussion veers towards hysteria in the UK, where the Conservative Party is embroiled in an open civil war over the issue and public opinion remains polarised on whether being a member of the EU is good or bad for Britain.
Many fear that if Britain leaves the bloc, other equally restless political groups will begin clamouring for an exit as well, prompting the beginning of the end of Europe.
Yes, Brexit, migration, slow growth and unemployment are major problems facing the EU. They weigh heavy on the minds of Europe’s great and the good.
But the real threat to Europe’s future isn’t often discussed — and if it is, the talk is hushed and fearful.
The danger Europe faces does not come from across the Channel — it comes from the east, from several former communist countries which joined the EU with great aplomb in 2004 and which today are challenging the spirit and the soul of the EU.
The EU’s eastward enlargement was celebrated as a victory of democracy over authoritarian rule and a celebration of the spread of liberal ideas across vast swathes of eastern and central Europe.
But it looks like the bad times are back. Many in western Europe bemoan the emergence of indecent and illiberal democracies in the east as the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland — the so-called Visegrad group — thumb their nose at their western neighbours by refusing to fall into line on questions like immigration and openly defy EU institutions on freedom of the media and the rule of law.
In recent months, all four countries have been the most vocal opponents of the EU response to the migration crisis. Hungary and Slovakia have been criticised for their anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Their leaders’ talk has often verged on Islamophobia as they have rejected calls to welcome refugees from the Middle East. Some have built fences to keep the refugees out.
Their words and actions echo those of Europe’s xenophobic and anti-immigrant far right parties — but unlike far right leaders who are outside government, the leaders of the Visegrad group are full-fledged members of the European Council.
Having failed to prevent Hungary from moving toward illiberal policies since Viktor Orban was elected prime minister in 2010, the Commission is taking a tougher stand against Poland which is under a European Commission investigation into the state of the rule of law after controversial constitutional reforms.
The unprecedented EU move — based on a so-called “rule of law framework” adopted in 2014 — is designed to tackle the threat posed by quasi-authoritarian regimes within the EU.
It follows criticism that while the EU is tough with countries outside the EU and those negotiating to join the club, once countries become EU members there is little that can be done to stop them from breaking basic EU rules.
The EU action on rule of law could lead to sanctions against Poland, including the country being stripped of EU voting rights.
But far from showing any remorse for violating European values, leaders of the four countries insist that they are setting the standards for the rest of Europe.
Czech premier Bohuslav Sobotka, Slovakia’s Robert Fico, Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Poland’s Beata Szydlo stood proudly together after a summit in Prague last week to underline they were winning the battle of ideas in Europe.
Szydlo and Orban were the clearest in describing central and eastern Europe as a model rather than as a troublemaker, with Orban saying the region is the “most stable region in terms of economy and politics”.
There are several ironies in the saga. First, even as they refuse to take in migrants and refugees from the Middle East, Polish, Hungarian and other eastern European nationals are part of huge migrant populations in western Europe.
Second, it is the increase in the number of migrants from eastern European states — especially Bulgaria and Romania but also from Poland — which is part of the toxic Brexit debate on immigration in Britain.
Third, Slovakia is set to take over the six-month presidency of the EU Council as of July 1 this year.
As such, Fico, whose anti-migrant rants still echo across Europe, will be in the driving seat of EU policies on crucial questions linked to the refugee and migration crisis over the next six months.