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Europe faces perfect storm of crises

The hard right is struggling, the left remains in disarray

This is an uncomfortable month to be a European. Almost everywhere you look, traditional certainties are unravelling in the face of a perfect storm of crises.

This week, Britain will trigger Article 50, firing the starting gun on its departure from the European Union. A second referendum on Scottish independence will likely follow, with speculation growing that Northern Ireland might now be more open to leaving the UK and joining with the Irish Republic.

In Holland, right-winger Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party may get the largest share of the vote in the general election, even though the collaboration of more mainstream Dutch parties will likely keep Wilders out of power.

In France, Ms Marine Le Pen and her National Front will almost certainly finish second in the first round of presidential elections this spring, although centrist Emmanuel Macron looks set to beat her in the second round.

Further east and north in Europe, worries about an increasingly assertive Russia still dominate. Sweden this month announced it is reintroducing conscription - abolished in 2010 - to bolster its military against the perceived threat from Moscow.

Finland - which has maintained conscription throughout - is conducting military exercises aimed at pushing back against hybrid warfare techniques.

In the Baltic states, Nato is in the midst of its largest European deployment since the Cold War.

CURRENCY WOES

The crisis over the European single currency has also not gone away - indeed, having struggled along ever since the financial crisis of 2008, it may be entering a new and volatile stage.

The next Italian election - perhaps as soon as June - could well hand the balance of power to political parties hostile to remaining in the currency bloc, which many Italians blame for years of slow growth and rising unemployment.

Not everything is collapsing quite as fast as naysayers might suggest.

In Germany, the far-right Alternative for Deutschland party has certainly grown fast, particularly in parts of the deeply frustrated East.

But it still seems unlikely to grab genuine political power in the German federal election in September.

It's a reminder of just how much Europe's hard right is struggling. Europe's left remains in disarray - witness the travails of Britain's Labour Party, or the chaos around scandal-hit French socialist presidential challenger François Fillon.

Still, only two European countries - Hungary and Poland - have governments that could be described as seriously right-wing.

And even they have often struggled to win battles many thought would be easy. When Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban called a referendum on banning further migrants from outside Europe last October, he failed to get a high enough turnout to make the results binding.

Europe may not be unravelling, but it does seem in a state of semi-permanent crisis. For almost a decade, European "crisis summits" - in which leaders convene over a weekend to talk over issues such as the single currency or EU reform - have been the norm, and few have produced particularly incisive results.

Much seems a matter of leadership. At both a national and regional level, Europe's leaders appear to be suffering a crisis of confidence, popularity and - at worst - political legitimacy.

RUSSIA'S AGENDA

Europe's state of uncertainty is something Russian President Vladimir Putin has been more than happy to exploit. There are plenty within the national security establishments of both Europe and the United States who believe Russia's intervention in Syria was partly designed to ramp up the refugee crisis, straining Europe's politics to its limits.

Events in the US have arguably added to that uncertainty. In an interview with Reuters last month, President Donald Trump surprised some Europe watchers by expressing his support for the European Union and its institutions.

That's a view shared by much of the US foreign policy establishment, if only because they fear the consequences if the EU unravels.

Some of those around Trump, however - particularly the ideologues such as chief strategist Steve Bannon - view the EU as anathema to their worldview, and would love to see it fail.

It's hard to say where things go from here.

Somehow, Europe has to convince itself things are not quite as bad as they look and find some optimistic route forward. Otherwise they might get worse than anyone is willing to contemplate. - REUTERS

The writer is global affairs columnist for Reuters, writing on international affairs, globalisation and other issues.

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