The political formula for riling up citizens of E.U. countries against the idea of European government is simple. Begin with the unpopular power of faraway institutions to regulate life at home. Add a financial crisis and economic slowdown and tell your taxpayers that their hard-earned euros will be used to bail out other countries. Throw in hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern refugees and the demands of other countries that you welcome “your share” of them. Then watch the votes come in.
That’s how a far-right Euroskeptic party just won power in Poland, while the Dutch Freedom Party, Italy’s Northern League and the Sweden Democrats have all capitalized on local anger at Brussels. In Greece, the Syriza Party found success with promises to force Europe to ease demands for austerity. Portugal is in political crisis after the country’s President denied a Euroskeptic alliance of left-wing parties the chance to form a government after elections earlier in October.
But the real contest will be in Europe’s three biggest countries: the U.K., France and Germany. The British already keep Europe at arm’s length by opting out of the euro and the Schengen Agreement, which allows visa-free movement across European borders. Prime Minister David Cameron has promised Britons a referendum on membership in the E.U. itself. Most polls suggest that Britain will likely remain in Europe, but the numbers are narrowing, and antipathy toward refugees means the vote may be closer than Cameron, who is for continued membership, would like.
In France, opinion polls show that the far-right National Front, led by self-styled “Madame Frexit” Marine Le Pen, is now more popular than the center-right Republicans or ruling Socialists. There’s plenty of time before the 2017 presidential election, but Le Pen is setting France’s political agenda, and the refugee crisis plays to her strengths–French unemployed may compare their benefits with those afforded Muslim refugees.
Then there’s Germany, Europe’s reluctant leader. Chancellor Angela Merkel is the most resilient European politician in a generation. But her approach to the migrant crisis has eroded her approval ratings to their lowest point in four years. Germany once expected to welcome 800,000 migrants in 2015. That number could swell to 1.5 million, and just 1 in 3 Germans now supports Merkel’s open-door approach.
In Sweden, two asylum seekers were arrested this year for killing a mother and son shopping at an Ikea store (charges against one were dropped). What might a single tragedy like that in Germany do to Merkel’s popularity? And what could political turmoil in Germany mean for Europe at a time of so much uncertainty? The E.U. has endured challenges in the past–but nothing as serious as this.
This appears in the November 09, 2015 issue of TIME.