VIENNA – Even before a vehemently anti-EU party won strong support in Austria, the European Union's top official acknowledged that the 28-nation bloc was in trouble.
"We are facing very tough times," European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told parliamentarians this month. "We are not very popular when we advocate for Europe."
Those comments were reinforced just days later with the victory Sunday of an anti-EU right-wing party in the first round of Austria's presidential election.
Such parties are growing in strength and putting European unity under siege. Instead of moving closer toward the founding nations' ultimate goal of "an ever-closer union," the EU faces disconnect and drift as populists blame it for much of the continent's ills.
At its worst, the EU faces a possible downsizing after Britain's June 23 referendum on whether the country should stay in the bloc of 500 million people. But less immediate threats also loom, from Eurosceptic populist parties that are exploiting both domestic voter discontent and general disillusionment with the EU to gain in strength.
With both national governments and the EU stumbling in response to the migrant crisis, terrorism, economic stagnation and joblessness, political consultant Thomas Hofer says Europeans are turning to "populist parties that offer easy solutions."
Political scientist Thomas Filzmaier traces the populist surge to the 2008 world financial crisis.
"(Since then), trust in EU institutions has crumbled but trust in national governments is hardly better," he says.
Beyond blaming the EU for dropping the ball on the continent's major concerns, Euroskeptics are campaigning on promises of more direct democracy. They make much of the fact that those on the European Commission — which proposes laws for the whole EU — are not elected but appointed by EU member governments, including Juncker, the commission president.
Such attacks have left their mark.
"Back 10 years ago, trust in national governments and the EU institutions was 60 percent, 65 percent, 70 percent," says professor Jeffry Frieden of Harvard University's Department of Government. "Now its 10-15 percent of the population who have any faith.
"The disaster, and the danger, is not a loss of support for Europe," he says. "The disaster is in the loss of faith and confidence in governments and in the institutions of European integration."
Austria is the latest to embrace the Eurosceptic message. There, the candidate from the Freedom Party, which preaches less instead of more EU, is the favorite going into May 22 presidential runoff election. Norbert Hofer received over 35 percent support in Sunday's first round, eliminating two contenders from pro-EU parties in the government coalition who received a total of just 22 percent of the vote.
The shift is significant, for Austria has been traditionally in the pro-EU camp. For pro-European politicians, the trend — and the strength of similar parties elsewhere — is just a worrying sign of what could happen in the country's next general election, which must be held within two years.
In EU founding member France, Marine Le Pen's far-right Front National party won European Parliament elections two years ago and a recent poll had 80 percent of respondents saying they think she'll make it to the second round of France's 2017 presidential election. In the Netherlands, a poll this year had anti-EU populist Geert Wilders' party leading in popularity.
Hungary and Poland are already governed by Eurosceptic parties while the Czech president regularly criticizes the EU. In Scandinavia and Finland, populist parties advocating national interests over EU authority are either in power or strongly represented in parliament.
Germany's AfD party, whose views clash with key EU principles, is in eight state parliaments, scoring in the double digits last month in three state parliament elections.
And the list goes on, with nationalist-populist parties — most of them right-wing — advocating less EU in the majority of the bloc's countries.
It's too early to tell whether their efforts will translate into more votes in the next European Parliament elections in 2019 and allow Euroskeptics to expand on the third of seats they now hold.
But symbolic gestures of EU disenchantment abound even in traditionally pro-EU countries like the Netherlands, where voters recently voted against an EU association agreement with Ukraine.
And even if they remain in the minority for now, Euroskeptics already are sapping efforts to find unified solutions to major challenges.
An EU-wide plan to distribute refugees foundered because of opposition from Hungary and like-minded nations. That, in turn, led to the unilateral imposition of national border controls even by some countries that subscribe to free movement within the EU — a fundamental right that political scientist Anton Pelinka describes as "the core value of European integration."
Top EU officials are heeding such signals. Juncker is warning that change is needed to keep alive the vision of a strong EU.
Otherwise, he said, "we will eventually end up with the ruins of this ideal."
Associated Press writers Sylvie Corbet in Paris, David Rising in Berlin, Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, Gregory Katz in London, Karl Ritter in Stockholm and Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed.