2020 was a terrible year for Europe. 2021 is unlikely to be much better

The European Union has struggled with issues such as coronavirus and Brexit in 2020

London (CNN)You'd struggle to find anyone in Europe who will be unhappy to see the back of 2020.

Covid-19, Brexit and the international political carnage of this year have hammered the continent and exacerbated tensions that have blighted the European Union for years.
But those problems are not going anywhere in 2021.
With no pandemic, fraught talks with the UK or an American president as anti-European Union as Donald Trump, Brussels might finally find space to address issues that have long undermined the bloc -- though it won't be easy.
    To some extent, the crises of 2020 have masked a debilitating lack of unity across the EU. For all Brussels' lofty ambitions of greater integration and becoming a global force in its own right, it faces pushback on issues ranging from internal adherence to the rule of law to a coordinated strategy for dealing with China.
    Rule of law is probably the most immediate problem to solve.
    After months of painful negotiation, the bloc's member states agreed on both a long-term budget and a Covid recovery package that totaled nearly $2 trillion. The nations that have been worst affected by the pandemic desperately need those funds.
    However, two member states spent a good chunk of 2020 objecting to the release of those funds: Hungary and Poland.
    The governments of Viktor Orban and Mateusz Morawiecki objected to the funds being tied to adherence to the rule of law, which is unsurprising as both are being investigated for breaches at an EU level. The charges levelled at both countries range from suppression of government critics to undermining the independence of the judiciary.
    During the coronavirus crisis, concerns have also been raised about the use of emergency measures in numerous EU nations -- including Hungary and Poland -- that curb the fundamental rights of citizens.
    It had long been speculated that Brussels would attempt to tie the EU's budget to the rule of law as a way of bringing delinquent states to heel.
    Unfortunately, trying to do so during a pandemic and the subsequent recession has strengthened the impact of the veto to which every member state is entitled.
    In this particular instance, intransigence in Budapest and Warsaw ultimately led to a compromise in Brussels in which both sides gave ground, which in the grand scheme of things could be interpreted as the EU fudging on one of its key principles.
    "Hungary and Poland might be the most extreme cases. But lots of other nations have backslid on civil liberties in the past few years," says Jakub Jaraczewski, legal officer at Democracy Reporting International.
    "Tying rule of law directly to EU money is not in itself a bad idea," he explains. "But if more than one nation is pushing the boundaries by curtailing freedoms and undermining judges, you will inevitably find these states backing each other at an EU level, undermining the whole thing."
    Several influential voices in Brussels had previously suggested approving the Covid recovery funds without Hungary and Poland, moving forward as 25, rather than 27. That approach, though, would have carried the risk of opening another fraught debate within the EU: Precisely how united the Union should be.
    Before Brexit, it wasn't just the UK which had populist movements agitating to leave the EU. Four years on, Europe's Euroskeptic parties are no longer looking to leave the bloc -- now they want to take it over instead.
    "It's clear that our electorate does not currently seek an exit from the EU, so instead our focus is to build enough Euroskeptic support to steer it away from the looming disaster of ever closer unity," says Gunnar Beck, a member of the European Parliament for Germany's far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party.
    Beck believes that the European Euroskeptic movement has the potential to grow, even as normality is restored post-Brexit and Joe Biden, a supporter of the EU, replaces Trump.
    "The EU has been in perpetual crisis since 2010 and hasn't solved any of the problems these crises have caused, be it the eurozone crisis, the migration crisis or now the Covid crisis," he says.
    2021 will see several opportunities to prove him right or wrong.
    Elections are to take place in several member states, including in Germany and the Netherlands -- two influential nations in Brussels. Both countries have strong Euroskeptic populist movements. AfD is the official opposition in Germany, while in the Netherlands Geert Wilders -- a man often described as the Dutch Trump -- will be defending his position as leader of the largest opposition party.
    The fear for Europhiles isn't that these extreme parties get into power, but that they spook mainstream politicians to the degree that they end up borrowing the populists' rhetoric. This, as they are well aware, is exactly what happened in the UK, as Nigel Farage cranked up the pressure on Conservatives to the point they had no choice but to call the Brexit referendum.
    This sensation is nothing new in the Netherlands. Incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte caused controversy during the 2017 election when he wrote an open letter critical of Islam and immigration. In 2020, Rutte was critical too of the EU's spending plans, demanding that money not be wasted -- an unusual move for a European liberal.
    "Rutte's shift to the right can only be understood when you look at how dangerous the prospect of Wilders eating into his vote might be," says Sarah De Lange, a professor at the department of political science at the University of Amsterdam. "Wilders is still a big force. Many have predicted his demise, but he is still here with a huge following."
    It's a pattern that has been repeated in many other EU countries including France, Germany, Czech Republic and Austria.
    Even in electoral defeat, the populists can claim political victories.
    "When populists go down, mainstream parties see an opportunity to pick up those votes and control the right-wing of their own parties. When th