Commentary: Europe’s party is over. It’s not clear what comes next.

“Peace, joy and pancakes” could have been the European Union’s motto. That silly German expression -- “Friede, Freude, Eierkuchen” -- refers to glossing over problems. It can also describe the blithe optimism with which most Europeans marched into the glorious future of a unified Europe. Today that promise seems to have evaporated.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel looks away during a statement to the media following talks with Lithuania's President Dalia Grybauskaite at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, April 20, 2016. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

As the European Union grew over the past 20 years, it looked like a party that was never going to end. Practically all the continent’s nations were invited. Those left out got rain checks.

The euphoria didn’t last. The 2008 financial crash and ensuing Greek debt crisis were the first harbingers of doom. Then Russia’s 2014 attack on Ukraine became the clearest sign that the party was over. Ukrainians had occupied central Kiev for months, to demand their government sign an association agreement with the European Union. When the protests turned violent and the president absconded to Russia, the Kremlin started tearing off pieces of Ukraine to wreck any chances for European integration.

Ukraine’s new pro-Western government signed the association treaty, anyway. It’s no longer certain, however, that Europe still wants Ukraine. In April, 61 percent of Dutch voters rejected the association agreement with Kiev, in a clear-cut, if nonbinding, national referendum.

The Dutch “no” vote is emblematic of the continent’s malaise. In Western Europe, perceptions of freeloading foreigners and an unaccountable EU leadership are fueling nationalist tendencies. Britain’s coming referendum on Brexit – whether or not to leave the European Union -- is the most drastic example. The rise of far-right parties in France and Germany, which both hold general elections next year, stems from a similar unhappiness with the status quo. Hard-line nationalists already hold ministerial posts in Finland and Norway, and Austria just came close to electing its first far-right president since World War Two.

The disappointment is mutual among the newer eastern EU members. They signed up for a white, Christian Europe -- and got a meddling, multicultural bureaucracy instead. Hungary and Poland, once the wunderkinder of the region’s democratic transformation, are led by politicians braying 1930s-style chauvinism. In the Czech Republic, home of the 1989 Velvet Revolution, there is talk of a “Czexit.” In Germany, the Islamophobic Alternative for Germany party is strongest among former East German citizens who never found their voice in reunified Germany.

In the 1990s, Germany’s wish to export stability to its eastern neighbors drove the European Union’s expansion. As more countries joined, European integration became a process that seemed both historic and inevitable. For the collective West, it was a way of making amends for abandoning Eastern Europe to Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin in World War Two. Economic disparities would be smoothed over. Inextricable trade ties and a common currency would make future conflicts impossible.

Today, the feel-good machine that was the European Union appears as kaput from within as from the outside. Ukrainians, the first Europeans to die holding the EU flag, are stuck at the very back of the line. The membership prospects of Balkan nations like Albania and Serbia are almost as remote.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is using the refugee crisis to squeeze concessions out of the European Union, which his country has applied to join. As for Russia, President Vladimir Putin views the 28-member union as a rival worthy only of self-destruction.

The promise of Europe looks to be over. Liberal democracy -- even in England, its home -- looks weak and flabby. German hubris carries a good deal of the blame.

The political class of post-reunification Germany pursued European integration with a curious mix of economic imperialism, cultural arrogance and heartfelt contrition for Nazi crimes against Eastern Europe. This kinder, gentler Germany has lost none of its ambition. But rather than dominate Europe through military might, it invoked the laws of the market and democratic bona fides earned over two generations.

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Demanding that new member states share its democratic values was the European Union’s right. It was also a smart way to persuade former communist dictatorships to overhaul their political and legal systems. Yet, values cannot simply be passed into law.

The refugee crisis put those values to the test. Eastern Europeans were almost unanimous in rejecting the newcomers. But there were plenty of people in Denmark, Germany and France who felt the same.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel deserves credit for averting a humanitarian catastrophe in Europe last autumn by keeping her country’s borders open. There was no telling how far Hungary’s pugnacious prime minister, Viktor Orban, would have gone in mistreating refugees trying to cross into his country. Only Germany was rich and strong enough to save them.

Merkel’s calls for “European solidarity” in sheltering refugees largely fell on deaf ears, however. After all, Germany hadn’t shown the same solidarity a few months earlier, when Italy and Greece were overwhelmed by thousands of migrants arriving on their shores. Rules about returning asylum seekers to “safe third countries” were designed to keep them out of wealthy Northern European states. When Merkel decided to welcome Syrian war refugees stranded in Hungary, her unilateral action took her neighbors by surprise.

The European Union’s autopilot works when there are clear skies. In times of turbulence -- Greek debt, Russian aggression, refugee treks -- Europe needs a captain. Merkel took over the controls not because she’s a natural leader but because she governs Europe’s most powerful country.

Merkel is a pragmatist; she takes pragmatic steps to clean up a mess. The chancellor often explains her decisions as being alternativlos, or without an alternative. Just as there was no alternative to bailing out the Greeks or sending Putin to the doghouse, sealing Germany’s borders was never a realistic option.

In the world according to Merkel, refugees can be prevented from reaching Germany’s doorstep by stopping their flow at the source -- namely, by cutting a deal with Erdogan to take back all migrants crossing Turkey.

The dilemma of German leadership is that when Berlin moves decisively, it gets accused of acting alone. Yet when it dithers, the rest of Europe squabbles and does nothing.

Germans are discovering what Americans had to learn after World War Two: No matter what you do (or don’t do), somebody will hate you for it. Germany’s historical burden of Nazism makes leading Europe even more difficult. Because leadership isn’t just about a country ready to lead. It’s about individuals who have the stuff of leaders. Europe’s problem today is that it has no visionaries who know where the continent should be heading.

As the Soviet Union began to crumble in the late 1980s, Kremlin leader Mikhail Gorbachev had the courage to imagine a Europe undivided. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the duo of French President Francois Mitterrand and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl pointed Europe in the direction of unity. Vaclav Havel, the playwright-dissident who became the Czech Republic’s first post-communist president, inspired millions of people in Europe.

Merkel, the European Union’s default leader, inspires few. Her biggest challengers are Putin and Erdogan, who share an unerring vision of the retrograde Europe they want to live in.

When President Barack Obama visited Germany in April, he sought to encourage his hosts. He reminded them that the European Union “remains the hope of the many and a necessity for us all.” Obama also warned that if Europe began to doubt itself, it would empower the enemies of democracy around the world.

When Air Force One took off, Merkel was again left alone with Europe’s problems. With U.S. presidential candidates questioning the usefulness of sticking up for European allies, it’s not even clear she will be able to count on America anymore.

About the Author

Lucian Kim has been reporting from Germany, eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union since 1996. He covered conflicts in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Georgia, and Ukraine. He is now based in Berlin. Follow him on Twitter at @Lucian_Kim.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.