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European Leaders Fear Rise Of Populist Candidates

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The European Union's supporters are worried. Later this month, British Prime Minister Theresa May will start the long process of withdrawing her country from the EU. We'll hear more about that in a moment.

Elections are coming up in Germany and France and tomorrow in the Netherlands, and parties hostile to the EU are expected to make a strong showing. NPR's Frank Langfitt recently visited the EU's home city, Brussels, to gauge the mood there.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: It's hard to overstate just how anxious people in and around the European Union feel right now. Just listen.

DAVID MCALLISTER: The European Union is facing enormous challenges, probably the biggest challenges since we started our project 60 years ago.

PAUL HOFFHEINZ: There's never been anything like this, not like this.

LANGFITT: Not even the euro crisis.

HOFFHEINZ: Oh, no, this is much more serious.

ROLAND FREUDENSTEIN: In my lifetime, I have not seen this city so gloomy and so depressed about the future.

LANGFITT: That's David McAllister, a German member of the European Parliament, Paul Hoffheinz - he's president of the Lisbon Council, an independent think tank here - and Roland Freudenstein, policy director at the Martens Centre for European Studies. It's the think tank of the European People's Party.

(CROSSTALK)

LANGFITT: Freudenstein chatted over beers at a Brussels pub, said people are turning to anti-EU parties out of frustration with the power the European wields over individual countries.

FREUDENSTEIN: We have an increasing number of people that are going to vote for nationalist, populist parties which are openly anti-European and want to take their countries out of the European Union. And the big fear is that in one of these elections that are coming up, one of these parties will actually win.

LANGFITT: Like Geert Wilders' Freedom Party in the Netherlands. Wilders hates the EU, as he described in this interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEERT WILDERS: The European Union is a political bureaucratic organization that took away our identity and our national sovereignty. So I want to get rid of the European Union and be a nation state again.

LANGFITT: Polls showed Wilders' Freedom Party leading for months, but recently it slipped into second place. Even if Wilders wins, he won't be able to become prime minister. That's because other leading parties won't work with him. What really worries the EU, though, is France, where Marine Le Pen's National Front, which also wants out of the EU, is very competitive and advanced in April's first round of voting. Again, Roland Freudenstein...

FREUDENSTEIN: That's the make-or-break election. If Marine Le Pen wins that presidential election in France, we're in huge trouble. It may be the end of the European Union, and we're all aware of this.

LANGFITT: EU critics - and there are many - see the trading bloc of 28 nations as a faceless, privileged bureaucracy seemingly ruling by fiat from the bubble of Brussels. But David McAllister, a European Parliament member for Germany, says people don't appreciate all it's accomplished.

MCALLISTER: The European Union has brought peace and stability for more than 65 years now to at least North and Western Europe. The European Union is also an economic success story. The single market is the largest market in the world.

LANGFITT: McAllister says the EU was built on the ashes of World War II to integrate economies and prevent more carnage in Europe.

MCALLISTER: The most dangerous political poison in the world is nationalism, and when nationalism meets the anger of people, twice the world was at the brink of complete collapse. And it was actually twice that Americans had to come to Europe to end wars Europeans started.

LANGFITT: Which is one reason Americans might want to keep an eye on this year's elections in Europe. As McAllister says, the United States has skin in the game. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Brussels. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.