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Editor’s Note: Paul Hockenos is the author of “Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin.” The opinions in this article are those of the author.

CNN  — 

Europe’s far right has its sights set on the European Union’s parliamentary elections, which take place in May next year.

With national populists surging across Europe, the vote could prove a game-changer for the continent’s hallowed postwar project of integration and peace.

And, in stark contrast to the EU’s supporters, the right looks organized, determined and ready to let rip.

Two of the far right’s front people, France’s Marine Le Pen and Italy’s Matteo Salvini, publicly announced their intentions in Rome on Tuesday, October 9.

The national populists – along with rightists from other EU member states – say that they will approach the vote as an alliance and target migration, social ills, austerity measures and the EU’s institutional shortcomings.

“We are not fighting against Europe, but against the EU, which has become a totalitarian system,” said Le Pen of Rassemblement National (RN, the former Front National). Next to her stood Salvini, Italy’s right-wing interior minister from the Northern League party.

Euroskeptics rightly believe that never since its birth, 60 years ago, has the EU looked as vulnerable as it does today. Its maladies have piled up – the lingering euro crisis, the indebted economies of the south, hapless foreign policies and a yawning democracy deficit – making it an ever-easier target for those who want to destroy it.

Sabotaging the EU has long been the right’s master plan. But rarely has the opportunity presented itself so auspiciously. Just about everywhere in Europe, the hard right is on the march. It holds power by way of coalition in Italy and Austria, while it leads administrations in Poland and Hungary.

Complicating Europe’s woes is the fact that in EU elections, the vote for fringe parties is usually greater than in national elections.

“It’s considered by many to be a second-order election since the parliament isn’t seen as having much real power,” explains Nicholas Whyte, a Brussels-based political analyst for APCO Worldwide, a consulting firm. “So it’s an excuse for people to vote with their hearts and gut rather than their heads. Unusual and new parties tend to benefit.”

Currently, a grab bag of anti-EU nationalists hold about 15% of the parliament’s seats – and that could well double next year. But even with 30% of the vote, which is not unrealistic, they couldn’t take on executive powers. They could, however, effectively block the efforts of centrists to pass legislation, which has presented a challenge in the past even without such an imposing, disruptive bloc.

Also, since the European Parliament includes 27 countries with nearly 500 million citizens, its symbolism, as the voice of Europe’s citizens, is enormous.

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The Brussels- and Strasbourg-based legislature is the democratic heart of the European project. The way the right poses its campaign as a popular storming of the Bastille could ravish its legitimacy.

Moreover, the parliament today wields more power than ever. Its say is crucial in a wide range of areas such as economic governance, immigration, energy, transport, climate change, the environment and consumer protection.

The EU’s proponents, still a significant majority, are well aware of the right’s plans to hijack the parliament – but they appear to have little inkling of how to defend it. Indeed, they’ve boxed themselves into a corner by allowing the EU to limp along with so many problems. The lack of leadership and vision starts in Berlin – a problem compounded by the question mark now lingering over German politics, since Angela Merkel has announced her intentions to retire at the end of her current term.

Europe’s supporters – liberals, conservatives, social democrats, greens – are thus in a no-win position: if they defend the union’s undemocratic structures, they look hypocritical and illiberal themselves. If they criticize the EU’s shortcomings, they legitimize the hard right, whose passionate attacks from outside the system ring more authentic.

The establishment parties, says Whyte, “are still playing the game by the old rules. They haven’t yet realized that the contest isn’t between the center right and center left, as in the past, but rather between the mainstream and the extreme.”

“The nationalists are attacking the EU,” argues the Italian daily newspaper La Stampa, “because in their opinion it’s a cartel of ruling classes lacking authentic legitimation: an elite project representing values supported by tiny minorities and which are alien to the sovereign people.”

Europe’s mainstream parties have to find a way to underscore the EU’s historic purpose and gravitas at a time when Europeans are ever more on their own.

Most Europeans realize that they cannot rely on a Trump-led US the way they have in the past. Yet they can only chart their own course as a tightly integrated federation.

The first step is to forge an alliance of their own and agree upon a package of reforms that would make the EU more transparent, streamlined and responsive to its citizens. Moreover, there has to be critique of and alternatives to the neo-liberal status quo that appears to have survived the decadelong financial crisis.

The right has zeroed in on the yawning inequality gap in Europe, which has only grown since the recession. It is another arrow to its quiver that will serve the radicals well among the lower middle classes.

This is the recipe that has catapulted national populists to power in western and eastern Europe, as well as North and South America.

Yet the right’s proposed “Europe of nations,” basically a gloried free-trade zone, is not a reasonable option either. Europe’s integration underpins the trade zone from which Europe derives much of its prosperity.

While it is not an alternative, a reformed EU is possible – and this is where its backers have to start.

The far right, however, is already a step ahead of them.