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At first glance, the European Union appears to be back on track. Election results in places such as Britain and France halted last year's populist wave, and some far-right parties have dropped their demands to leave the bloc. Meanwhile, the euro-zone economy recently outperformed the United States.

But what may look like a swing of fortunes is more likely a quick breather, and Austria’s elections on Sunday showed why.

The country’s far-right Freedom Party is projected to make significant gains, and it may end up sharing power in a coalition with the center-right People's Party. The latter, led by 31-year-old foreign minister Sebastian Kurz, has already co-opted many of the far-right's policy proposals and repackaged them for the mainstream.

Even as he served in a left-right “grand coalition,” Kurz’s skepticism of some E.U. policies as foreign minister caused headaches for his counterparts abroad. If he becomes chancellor in a right-wing coalition, his stance on the union is likely to harden, putting Austria in a group of E.U. member states deeply critical of some key E.U. principles and goals.


Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz addresses Freedom Party supporters in Vienna following Austrian elections on Oct. 15. (Christian Bruna/European Pressphoto Agency/EFE)

For those governments, Brussels looks far too powerful already — even as it pushes for further political integration of the union.

The European Commission acted several times this year to rein in member states, most recently launching legal action against Poland to protest the government's moves against judicial independence.

The union has few tools to enforce such moves — it mostly relies on its member states to voluntarily follow the rules — but its actions still fuel tensions between the bloc and its members. Philip Hammond, Britain's chancellor of the exchequer, referred to E.U. representatives last week as the “enemy,” and he's hardly the first major European politician to do so. (Hammond later apologized.)

And even as Britain prepares to leave the union in 2019, E.U. leaders are casting Brexit as a chance to finally focus on handing more political and economic powers over to Brussels without being held back by London. But plenty of the E.U.'s smaller countries have demanded that integration slow down, and there's no sign they will drop those complaints.

Some countries, such as Poland and Hungary, have been openly confrontational with the European Union, and Austria's election result indicates that Vienna may soon join them. But Britain has served as the de facto ambassador of smaller countries such as Denmark that are more quietly opposed to speeding up integration.

There is no easy solution to those complaints, which run along a number of political fault lines. Northern countries may oppose deeper economic ties because of Southern Europe's weak growth; Western European countries might participate in closer immigration cooperation while Eastern Europe remains staunchly opposed; E.U. members in the euro zone are in favor of deeper financial integration, whereas countries with their own currencies fear they might be left out of crucial decisions in the future.

E.U. skepticism becomes especially problematic when it is used by governments to pursue their domestic agendas — or when it mixes with historical resentment, as can be observed in Poland. Politicians there are stirring tensions against the E.U. and Germany by arguing that the union is dominated by Berlin and designed to damage Poland.

With Britain about to leave the European Union, France and Germany are the key countries that will define the union's future. In an interview with Germany's Der Spiegel magazine that was widely discussed in Europe over the weekend, French President Emmanuel Macron reemphasized the need for expansive reforms. "Since 2005, when the French and the Dutch voted no on a constitution for Europe, nobody has developed a real project for the E.U." Macron acknowledged.

Now he is vowing to change that. Macron laid out a detailed proposal for the first time during a speech last month. His approach includes deeper security and defense ties, more cooperation on migration and a joint finance minister. Macron also voiced support for a so-called multispeed economic model, which would allow some countries to pursue more extensive changes than others.


French President Emmanuel Macron describes plans for reforming the European Union in Paris on Sept. 26. (Ludovic Marin/Reuters)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel looks likely to follow Macron's lead. Merkel is often cast as Europe's preeminent leader, but the losses suffered by her party in last month's German election have weakened her hand. Jürgen Kaube, one of the publishers of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Germany's leading conservative newspaper, placed some veiled blame for euroskepticism at the feet of Merkel's government Sunday.

“To many, Europe is only a word or a collection of administrative fiats and court rulings — and it is expensive,” Kaube wrote in an editorial.

The problem with Macron’s proposed reforms is that the proposals themselves are mostly not new — and some have already proved difficult to implement. Eastern European nations have been reluctant about or openly hostile to E.U. proposals to share responsibility for the refugee influx. Deeper security ties are restricted by a consensus among most experts that Europe probably won't have a unified military anytime soon. Even devastating terror incidents such as the 2015 Paris attacks failed to persuade member states to significantly expand their counterterrorism cooperation.

And what Macron described as a multispeed vision for Europe is already a reality: Instead of trying to find common ground with all 28 member states, many E.U. leaders have resorted to building coalitions with countries that have similar goals. The E.U. is not moving ahead as one union, but rather as many different ones.

Polish President Andrzej Duda warned last month that becoming a union of unions would eventually turn the E.U. into a class society, with some groups or countries effectively becoming second-class members. Such a balkanized bloc, he said, could easily fall apart.

Whether Macron's approach might rescue the union or destroy it remains to be seen. But the fact that a key reform proposal could also be a death blow may tell us more about the state of the E.U. than anything else.

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