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European Union flags flutter outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, April 20, 2016.

Reuters

When Pierre Moscovici, the European Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs, took to the stage Monday evening in Athens, a few of us were expecting a stirring speech. The moment demanded it. The economic and financial crisis that nearly tore the European Union and euro zone apart five years ago had been replaced by a political crisis that threatens to do the same. What would he say about it?

Not much, as it turned out – an opportunity wasted. We didn't need statistics or boilerplate blather about structural reforms. We needed a rousing speech on why the EU countries should even bother staying aboard the EU when the whole integration project seems to be on a Titanic run.

Mr. Moscovici, a Parisian who was France's finance minister until 2014, was speaking before the guests at the American-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce's annual gab-fest. He told the audience some of the things they expected, and wanted, to hear, of course. "There is light at the end of the tunnel," he said, about the rumoured Greek recovery, adding that Greece "must be at the core of Europe, not on the fringe."

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But what was the "Europe" he was talking about? Europe is undergoing seismic change that could crack it wide open. Britain is on its way out of the EU and European populist parties, each of them emboldened by Brexit and Donald Trump's presidential victory, are on the rise.

On Sunday, Italy holds a referendum on constitutional reform that is turning into a popularity contest between centre-right Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and Beppe Grillo, the former comedian who leads the anti-establishment, Euroskeptic Five Star Movement. The polls suggest that M5S could win the next election, putting the euro zone's third-largest economy in the hands of a party that is calling for a referendum on the common currency. On the same day as the Italian referendum, Austrians go to the polls to elect their next president. There is a good chance he will be Norbert Hofer of the right-wing, anti-immigrant Freedom Party.

Next spring, Marine Le Pen, the Trump-cheering, xenophobic, anti-EU and anti-euro Front National leader could snatch the French presidency even though the polls suggest she will lose in the second voting round. But as the Brexit and Trump victories showed, polls can be dead wrong.

Mr. Moscovici is not known for his engaging speaking style. He is not the boss of the European Commission, the EU's executive arm. But still, he and the other commissioners occupy the top rung of the whole apparatus that comprises the world's largest trading bloc and the one region of the world where war is unthinkable.

As the nationalist and populist forces gain momentum in Europe, they need to do a compelling sales job on the benefits of EU membership, for so many of its 500 million citizens are convinced the whole supra-national construct is an exercise in deadening bureaucracy, undemocratic decision-making and inertia that has left many crucial policy areas blank.

The EU has a refugee policy, but, incredibly, no immigration policy. It has no common military that can enforce the external borders (though the tiny Frontex fleet in the Mediterranean is giving it a shot). It has an effective competition regulator, but no common market for energy, banking and telecoms. It has the euro, which is used in 19 of the EU's 28 countries but which seems to be impeding growth in Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal, Finland and maybe France.

So what is the point of the EU? It is not a frivolous question given its spectacular shortcomings after 60 years of existence. A majority of British voters didn't see the benefit of the EU and are hitting the road. The bloodless response by the European commissioners and their allies to the populist uprising only makes it easier for the skeptics to be skeptical. It's easy to write off the populists like Ms. Le Pen, Mr. Grillo and Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party as egomaniac EU wreckers, but at least they have passion.

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In reality, there is only one European who has a fair chance of keeping the EU and euro zone from blowing apart and that's German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Next week, she will appear at her Christian Democratic party conference to outline her strategy for running for a remarkable fourth term.

The German election has to be held no later than October, 2017. While she will probably win, her victory would be far less sweet if the rising, far-right Alternative for Germany party enters parliament or her pro-European stance is rendered useless by populist election victories in France, Austria and the Netherlands before the Germans go to the polls. (Italy's election is scheduled for 2018, but could happen earlier if Mr. Renzi loses Sunday's referendum and resigns as he has promised to do.)

In the next weeks and months, Ms. Merkel has a great, and crucial, opportunity to campaign from Europe as well as Germany. She believes in the rule of law, democracy and open markets and is against winner-take-all capitalism, closing the borders to refugees and using bombs to try to impose freedom on dictatorships. Her message must be that the EU countries together can preserve these freedoms and principles and that each country, on its own, is too weak to have any clout on the world stage in areas such as trade, defence, climate change and intellectual capital.

Ms. Merkel is famous for her steady, low-key, non-hysterical stance to crises. Time for her to get some passion too before the populists steal it all.

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