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The future of the E.U. is at stake as Europe’s leaders face a new fear: Voters

Italy's Senate is to vote on the 2017 budget on Dec. 7, the last task for outgoing Prime Minister Matteo Renzi before he officially resigns, the upper house of parliament said. (Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images)

Europe's leaders have a new fear — their own voters.

A ballot-box revolution is gathering steam on the troubled continent, where citizens this year have seized opportunities to depose top officials and step into the unknown. The latest ouster was Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, after his nation overwhelmingly rejected his signature reforms this past weekend. But France, the Netherlands and Germany all face tough elections next year, and the fate of the European Union is in the balance.

The discontent has been fueled in part by the lingering effect of the 2008 global economic crisis, which continues to depress many of Europe’s job markets. But anti-establishment parties are thriving even in prosperous countries that escaped the worst of the pain, capitalizing on resentment toward immigrants, fears about the future and a backlash toward globalization that itself has become a global trend.

Even before the votes are cast, mainstream politicians are making concessions to thriving far-left and far-right parties in an effort to blunt their appeal. French President Fran­çois Hollande, whose popularity has scraped a record-low 4 percent, made the unprecedented announcement last week that he would not seek reelection in order for another Socialist to stand a chance at succeeding him.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday delivered a rabble-rousing call to ban "full-veil" Islamic coverings in her country, a concession to right-wing forces after she made Germany a world leader in welcoming refugees last year. She is running for reelection next fall. And Dutch leaders, facing elections in March, have been trapped between trying to maintain good relations with troubled Ukraine while obeying the will of a referendum championed by the far-right that banned Dutch ratification of an E.U. trade deal with the country.

The troubles come even while European leaders begin to negotiate the terms of Britain’s divorce from the E.U., known as Brexit, a messy process that itself is an epochal shift for a league of countries forged in World War II’s lingering embers.

“There’s a way success breeds success with these parties,” said Mark Leonard, the head of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“The Brexit vote did create a sense of the possibility of winning for Trump. His election makes it less preposterous that Marine Le Pen might win in France,” he said, referring to the far-right French leader who wants to drastically roll back E.U. powers. “And if Marine Le Pen wins in France, that will be a shock to the European system many times greater even than the Brexit vote.”

The vital signs are not all grim for European leaders. Attitudes about Brussels have grown more positive in most major countries since the British vote in June to leave the European Union — even in Britain, according to a Bertelsmann Foundation survey released last month. Researchers theorized that the bounce was driven by a newfound appreciation for the benefits of the club after the British referendum unleashed turmoil across the continent.

And Renzi himself may be embracing elections despite his humiliating defeat. He is seeking new elections as soon as February, local Italian media reported Tuesday, despite having his constitutional changes rejected by 59 percent of voters. Early elections would be a major gamble, since populist parties on the left and right are surging in opinion polls and the anti-euro Five Star Movement is just a hair behind Renzi's center-left Democratic Party in opinion polls. But Renzi may be calculating that early elections would be best for his personal political survival and that anti-system parties would be unable to form a coalition even if one of them placed first.

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Even if overall feelings about the European Union are swinging slightly more positively, the trend can do little to allay voters’ specific concerns about their leaders. The most disruptive shift in Europe next year could happen in France in May, when Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, is expected to make it to the second round of the presidential elections and could pull off an upset win.

She would represent a historic shift for a country that alongside Germany co-founded what became the European Union after World War II.

“This Italian ‘no,’ after the Greek referendum [against a bailout], after Brexit, adds a new people to the list of those who wish to turn their backs on absurd European policies plunging the continent into misery,” she wrote Monday on her website.

If elected, Le Pen has vowed to hold a referendum on French membership in the E.U. And if France pulls out, many pro-European advocates believe the entire project would fall apart.

“If Marine Le Pen wins, that will comprise an existential shock to the E.U. and for stability in Europe,” said Simon Tilford, the deputy director of the London-based Center for European Reform.

Amid rising resentments, many leaders have struggled to find a convincing argument why voters should believe in the E.U. and give mainstream parties a chance.

“Creating a counternarrative which takes into account the fears and the multiple uncertainties people have while turning it into a positive narrative is very difficult,” said Janis Emmanouilidis, the director of studies at the European Policy Center in Brussels.

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