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LONDON – Angela Merkel's decision to step down as party leader even as she tries to keep her position as German chancellor highlights a trend bedeviling Europe's leaders: Centrist parties are fading as fringe parties gather pace.
Merkel — whose familiar face would be on a Mount Rushmore of contemporary European leaders if one were carved — succumbed to political reality after several poor showings in state elections that showed voters moving to alternative parties on either side of her center-right Christian Democrats.
In Italy, a coalition of anti-establishment, anti-immigrant parties is in power, and in France, newly elected pro-business, pro-European Union President Emmanuel Macron has seen his popularity plummet after the novelty of his 2017 election dissipated.
In Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May clings to power without a majority in Parliament. She is struggling to keep her Conservative Party behind her as she seeks a middle-of-the-road Brexit blueprint rejected by hard-liners who want a complete break with the EU even as a "people's vote" movement by those who want to scrap Brexit altogether gains some force.
The idea of liberal democracy — for decades the cornerstone of the vaunted "European project" — seems under fire as increasingly authoritarian governments rule Hungary and Poland and make gains elsewhere.
Alice Billon-Galland, a policy fellow with the European Leadership Network in London, says voters in Europe are supporting not only far-right parties but smaller "anti-establishment" parties from the left as well, such as the Greens, who did well in German voting. That leaves Europe's leaders in a compromised position ahead of vital European parliamentary elections next year.
"My concern is more about leadership, and the future of the European project," she said. "At a time of rising populism throughout the EU, and just before key elections in 2019, what Europe needs more than anything else is a vision and a strong, united core leadership to deliver it."
She concedes this is unlikely with Britain withdrawing and Germany's policies in transition.
The atmosphere is completely different than it was two decades ago in the period that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the enlargement of the EU to include former Soviet satellites.
Triumphalism reigned, with the perhaps naive belief that the trappings of liberal democracy, including freedom of expression, freedom of movement and free-market capitalism, would carry the day for the foreseeable future.
That was before Europe was hit by a series of lethal extremist attacks, a large influx of migrants from Asia, Africa and the Middle East and several financial crises that badly shook faith in the euro, the common currency that had been seen by many as the cement that would bind Europe together in an "ever closer union."
Dominique Moisi, a senior adviser with the Institut Montaigne research group in Paris, said the "spirit of the times" is going against centrist, rational, pro-European leaders, in part because of a "rage" against the elite that is deeply felt by many.
"The problem for all the European leaders is the European election for May of next year," he said. "What will be the results? Will anti-European forces be the leaders? It's possible."
Voter turnout for the election of the European Parliament is traditionally low, which could give non-centrist parties that organize effectively a chance to make substantial gains.
That could mean populists gain footholds on important committees, giving them a substantial impact on policy, said Anand Menon, director of the UK In a Changing Europe group in London.
That not only has symbolic value — a strong showing in Europe-wide balloting can serve as a springboard to success in elections in home countries — but also would give new parties some policy clout, he said.
He cites the troubles facing Germany's main center-left party, the Social Democrats, as an example of the problems plaguing centrist groups throughout Europe. The party's traditional working class voters are "fleeing" toward to the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party, he said, while its bourgeois, intellectual followers are joining the ecology-minded Greens.
"I wouldn't say the center is disappearing," Menon said. "I would say the centrist parties are finding it hard to come up with a narrative or a message that appeals to a sufficient number of people."