BERLIN — Europe's leaders were jubilant when Alexander Van der Bellen won the Austrian election Sunday. The bitter pill came later with confirmation that Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, a strong supporter of the European Union, had lost the constitutional referendum he'd staked his reputation on — and would resign. Italy was one of the founding members of the EU. Renzi's resignation is just the latest grave worry for those who support a united Europe. Most of Renzi's opponents, from both the left and right, are firm opponents of Brussels. The European bloc must now prepare for more hard knocks in 2017.
So taken together, what do the results in Austria and Italy mean for the EU's future?
Van der Bellen, who supports the European Union, beat far-right candidate Norbert Hofer in Austria's presidential election, which is a ray of hope for many EU politicians. After Britain voted to leave the EU in June and billionaire Donald Trump won the U.S. election in November, the Austrian election is proof that populism and nationalism is not bound to always be a surefire success.
"Austrians are sending a clear pro-European signal. The right-wing populists' celebration is cancelled for now," Manfred Weber, chairman of the EPP political group in the European Parliament, wrote on Twitter.
Italy is a very different story. Renzi's opponents — the upstart 5-Star Movement and the Lega Nord, a separatist party — were both successful in playing on populist fears. Still, they certainly can't be lumped together on their EU views. "I don't see a Europe defeated," says Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg's foreign minister. He says the results were more about Italian domestic politics.
Still, euroscepticism appears to have been trigger the rise of these movements, and the defeat of Renzi could lead to instability, which could spread turbulence across Europe because of the country's high debt, with banks sitting on a pile of bad loans. Politically speaking, an early election in Italy could put eurosceptics in a more decisive position. Things would get more serious if Italian populist Beppe Grillo, founder of the 5-Star Movement, decided to push for Italy's exit from the eurozone. "If Europe loses Italy … it will never be the same again," European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told Italian newspaper La Stampa.
Next year, the anti-EU rash might spread to two other founding members — France and the Netherlands — thanks to politicians like Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders. But what does Renzi's defeat mean for German Chancellor Angela Merkel?
Merkel faces an immediate jolt. She had come to rely on Renzi as an ally ever since he assumed office. Merkel fears that Italy will return to its position as Europe's trouble spot and that there will be more turmoil in the eurozone. With French president François Hollande leaving office next year. Merkel needs allies after Britain's vote to depart from the EU and Merkel's opponents in Germany, who are increasingly anti-EU, are giving her a hard time, and cheering each time something goes wrong in Europe. The rescue package for Greece was highly disputed insider her own party. If Italy also dips financially, it could spell serious trouble for Merkel, who will be seeking a fourth term next autumn.
The EU, battered and bruised, has become an easy target. During the migrant crisis, no consensus could be found about the distribution of asylum seekers. Tens of thousands of refugees ended up in Italy by default by way of geography. During the debt crisis, the bloc wasn't able to find a recipe that managed to equitably share burdens and prosperity. According to Eurostat, Germany's unemployment rate is 4.1%, Italy's 11.6%, Spain's 19.2% and Greece's 23.4%. Such stark and entrenched disparities threaten to shake Europe's very foundation.
How can the EU face down this situation? That's a tough question. "Brexit" has prompted reflection. Leaders in both Brussels and national capitals are now advocating for better responsiveness to citizens, a more positive image for Europe and deeper transparency. Still, it's tough to get this message across. In March, Europe will be celebrating 60 years since signing the Treaty of Rome, a pact that had solidified the integration of member states. That celebration will be taking place where the drama has unfolded over the past 48 hours: in Rome.