I have lived and worked across mainland Europe for much of my adult life. I have family in Italy and Germany, two of my children were born in Madrid and I started my career in journalism at the Austrian equivalent of the BBC more than 20 years ago.
I’ve witnessed wars in the Balkans, the growing pains of German reunification, the introduction of the euro, and the rebirth of Europe’s former Soviet states, all of them yearning to join the European Union. I’ve lived through the euro crisis in Spain, and watched it ravage friends’ finances and the future of their families.
This continent has certainly had its ups and downs over the past couple of decades, but never have I seen the EU – the European “project” born 60 years ago on the prayer of Never Again following the devastation of the Second World War – flirt quite so closely with the flames of extinction.
These have been extraordinary months – and I’m not just referring to Brexit. Hot on the heels of the UK’s EU referendum last June, I began to film this BBC2 documentary to investigate just how hard and fast anti-establishment and anti-EU winds were blowing across the Europe I know so well, but where unpredictability now rules.
From the colourful, music festival-like gatherings hosted by Italy’s new pop star politicians to hard-hitting antimigrant patrols in Hungary, I met the Europeans from all walks of life dragging this continent to a crossroads.
Of course, Brexit is not insignificant in all this. The vote to leave the EU hit Europe hard. The UK is one of the EU’s biggest economies; one of its only two military powers (France being the other). What we often don’t realise in Britain, though – and I can say this as a Brit who has lived so many years abroad – is how much the rest of Europe likes us.
Inside the EU, we were like the cool kids in the class: the ones who always sat at the back of the bus; the ones others wanted to emulate. The vote was met with regret across Europe by mainstream voters and politicians alike.
But many sentiments behind the UK vote rang loud and true for ordinary Europeans. Anger against the establishment had spread across Europe well before 23 June last year. Brexit can’t be blamed. But the 2008 economic crisis and other pivotal developments can.
The number of people in Europe feeling left behind, disadvantaged and angry ballooned following the financial crash and ensuing euro crisis. Middle-and-working-class families in southern Europe, particularly in Spain and Greece, were devastated. And in the richer north of the continent, even when bank balances weren’t drastically affected, families’ sense of security was.
Governments and the EU appeared to bail out bankers while leaving ordinary people to struggle with financial instability and loss. That was not forgotten. Or forgiven. And it blew wind into the political sails of more nationalist-minded, Eurosceptic populist parties – whether the National Front in France, Syriza in Greece or the Freedom Party in Austria – who promised to listen to and act in the interests of the people. It was evident even in traditionally EU-enthusiastic Germany, a country that embraced the European Union like no other as a welcome means of leaving its Nazi past behind.
But modern-day German taxpayers resent the euro currency obliging them to dig deep into their pockets to pay the debts of struggling southern Europe. The populist Alternative for Germany party started life as an anti-euro movement, only to quickly replace its core message as the next European crisis hit.
And the migrant crisis, peaking in 2015, has proved fertile ground for Europe’s anti-establishment parties. Once again, European families found themselves on the front line, feeling exposed and, to their minds, without protection from the powers that be – whether it was islanders in Greece faced with tens of thousands of desperate people washing up on their shores, or Hungarian farmers who had countless asylum seekers walking across their fields and using irrigation systems as showers. Or simply TV viewers anxiously watching pictures of the world’s destitute pouring into their continent.
Europeans were already resentful towards the authorities when the next shockwave hit – a horrific sequence of terror attacks in France, Germany and Belgium. Plots had been hatched across the continent. Some of the perpetrators appeared to have used the wave of migration into Europe as a way to return here undetected after terror training in the Middle East.
But where were the political reassurances? Where was the plan designed by governing politicians and the EU to ensure everything would be OK? There seemed to be no plan. And the political parties with clear answers to offer to this avalanche of crises (all-too-easy answers, counter their critics, with no respect for reality) were Europe’s anti-establishment populists.
Katya Adler meets László Toroczkai, a far-right leader in Hungary
The fact is that, in much of Western Europe, the same political parties have been in government since the end of the Second World War. Sometimes centre-left, sometimes centre-right, but all of them – in the eyes of many Europeans – privileged, complacent and beholden to big business and to Brussels.
The so-called populist parties vary in their politics, of course, but most tend to be nationalist in tone. They are often anti-globalisation, anti-immigration and very Eurosceptic, too. This year they are also strong contenders in elections in key European nations – France and Germany – and possibly in Italy, too, if polls there are brought forward.
The leader of Italy’s populist Five Star Movement, Beppe Grillo, gives the key-note speech at the party’s annual political conference in Palermo, Sicily
So, considering the growing influence of Eurosceptic populists in Europe, do I believe this means curtains for the EU? Well, if our referendum and Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration have taught us anything, it’s that we shouldn’t trust opinion polls, predictions or accepted wisdoms.
Voters are in an unpredictable mood. And for the first time in years they’re engaged. Gone are Europe’s election day shrugs of the shoulder, once so commonplace. With polemical populists in the running across the continent now, people for and against them feel motivated to vote – though not necessarily to leave the EU.
In the UK we often underestimate European ties to the EU. For many on mainland Europe, it is a revered continental peace project, offering subsidies for poorer countries and stability for politically chaotic ones like Italy.
In a number of nations, like normally eurosceptic Denmark, EU support actually increased slightly following our Brexit vote. That said, few Europeans are happy with the Union the way it is now. The cry for change is deafening. As is the demand for less bossiness from Brussels. EU power-brokers have a choice: to sink or swim differently, and more in harmony with what the people of Europe want.
Under pressure and in a fight to survive, the EU may now move in the direction that, ironically, the UK always preferred – with less political “interference”. But Europe’s populist-in-chief, Marine Le Pen (who is a frontrunner in France’s presidential election this year), doesn’t believe the EU can change. She compares it to the Soviet Union, predicts it will fall “like the Berlin Wall” and told me she is working across Europe with like-minded political movements to create what she calls a new Europe of sovereign nations.
“2017 is our year,” she insists. It is unlikely but not impossible that Mrs Le Pen will become France’s new President. Even if she and other Eurosceptics fall short of victory but still perform strongly at the polls, their influence from the sidelines will grow.
Europe’s decision-makers face an unprecedented challenge. Our thorny national debate about Brexit could turn out to be irrelevant. Sooner or later the EU as we know it may no longer be there for us to leave.
After Brexit: the Battle for Europe is on Thursday 9th February at 9:00pm on BBC2