In the major capitals of Europe, almost anyone in an official capacity that you talk to is using the language of impending danger and potential doom.
Fear is palpable. Uncertainty about the ability of Europe’s leaders to resist the forces of change that are now massing runs deep.
Conversations I have had in recent days with people I have known and respected in several European capitals for years who have always made good arguments about why the European Union will always overcome, in its muddle-some way, the challenges confronting it are suddenly worried.
The regime changing populist revolts in Britain and the United States are shocks of a magnitude beyond the experience of most of the euro-era’s political class.
If Britain and America can fall, then surely so can the European Union.
The mood change is such that there is now deep anxiety in Brussels, Berlin, Paris, Rome and other capitals about the series of democratic tests that Europe faces in coming months.
These start early next month, in Italy and Austria, followed in the New Year by what everyone is calling “the big one” – the French presidential election.
What were seen before the Brexit and US shocks as difficulties are now seen as existential threats.
A senior foreign policy official in Brussels told me: “I’m getting a knot in my stomach about the outlook. I had the same feeling about Donald Trump. I hoped that he would not win, but the fear that he would was strong. I hope that Europeans won’t embrace Trumpism, but I have the same fear”.
Among his fears is that, what happened in Britain and America could happen in Europe for similar reasons: that the people who felt strongest about wanting to punish the establishment and the existing order will turn out in droves for the upcoming votes, but that too few of the less passionate will bother.
“What happened in Britain and the US was not just about populism. It was also about complacency. Populism won because too many people couldn’t be bothered going to vote against it,” the official said.
A major factor in the Brexit and US presidential votes was that the campaigns for maintaining the existing order were unable to energise populations which were ambivalent about the benefits of it. In the US, post-election research has found that a high proportion of those who chose not to vote did not think their vote mattered.
In Europe, recent polls suggest that there has been a significant rise, across the European Union, in similar sentiment.
A just released poll, Parlemeter 2016, conducted by Eurobarometer, of public opinion in the EU found that there had been a 10 per cent jump in the past year in people who believed their voices were not being heard any more. There was a 13 per cent increase in those who felt Europe was no longer moving in the right direction.
In the EU establishment, there is deep concern that people who are angry about these things will vote to overturn the system while those who are simply dissatisfied with it will not feel the need to vote to defend it.
Another concern is that, if the anti-establishment forces in Austria (at the December 4 presidential election which could see Europe’s most extreme far right leader elected) and in Italy (for the national referendum vote on the same day which could see the Renzi government fall) are successful, it will be the start of a “domino effect” that will roll across Europe at the series of upcoming national elections.
This would greatly increase the chances of a Marine Le Pen victory in France in May next year.
Brussels insiders are desperately hoping that the shock of the triumph of “Trumpism” might help bring voters out to defend “European values”.
One EU official, who did not want to be named, told me that he believed the threat that “Trumpism” posed to Europe should be a cause for mobilising European public opinion.
He believed that Europeans could be inspired to fight to defend the values of freedom and democracy that the Eurobarometer poll showed three quarters of respondents believed were the most important reason for the continuing existence of the European Union.
“I think the stakes now are much higher than they have been in the past in Europe. I think we can argue that Trumpism is an ideology which poses a fundamental threat to Europe,” he said.
“It’s always the case that people are most willing to fight for something when there is a clearly definable enemy to fight against. I think we can declare Trumpism as that enemy.”
But for this to be successful, it will need more than just European politicians to mount the argument. The defenders of the current European order need to a mass mobilisation – statesmen, business leaders, community leaders and the leaders of key institutions.
Given that it is no longer an overstatement to say that the European Union is about to enter a dangerous period of potential destructive disruption, such a mobilisation should be seen as urgent and achievable.
By Geoff Kitney