Now that 2016 is coming to an end, we can sum up its key political results for the European Union. This year, the EU faced a problem its leader Jean-Claude Juncker termed as polycrisis – a mixture of several crises, which intercommunicate and generate new crises. For example, the criticism of the EU’s austerity in 2014-2015 has now grown into much wider criticism, which has overshadowed the initial problem. According to former President of the European Council Herman van Rompuy, today, the European Union is transiting from specific functional to existential problems.
The acting EU leaders are more optimistic. The EU’s key slogan in 2016 was that any crisis generates new opportunities. Europe’s cultural resources are so large that it will certainly be able to overcome the current challenges. But at what a price?
Today, the EU’s ideology is staggering. Formerly, such an anomaly could happen only in the periphery, in a country like Orban’s Hungary, but, recently, the EU received a blow from its key ally or suzerain. The key shock for Europe in 2016 was the outcome of the presidential election in the United States. During his electoral campaign, Donald Trump discredited almost all liberal values, including those that underpin the EU. Besides, Trump may review the United States’ security policy in Europe, for example, he may start negotiations with Putin on Ukraine bypassing the Europeans.
If this happens, their confrontational eastern policy will lose any sense and they will not know how to save their face and values as everybody will see the weakness and partiality of their strategy. As of today, Trump remains an unknown entity for them and this is why the rulers of the major European capitals are so nervous. In contrast, some right-wing European leaders have welcomed Trump and his nation-oriented policy. After the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Europeans began regarding the United States as their leader and now they have no idea what they will do without one.
Trump’s victory has become an ideological knockdown for the EU. In response, Obama has proclaimed Angela Merkel as the key protector of the western values. But the problem is that Merkel’s rating in Germany has plummeted due to her disastrous immigration policy and without Obama, she will have to reaffirm her authority. So, 2017 will be a kind of exam for her.
Trump, Brexit, the EU’s common commercial policy and growing nationalism have urged the EU to find new reasons for existence and also ways to restore the confidence of its citizens.
Brexit has questioned the value of the EU membership and has caused a new crisis between the EU and the UK.
Brexit was a particular example of the general rise of nationalism in the EU. As a result, instead of a special status for the UK – as was planned by Cameron – the EU has gotten long divorce proceedings, which may question the very sense of the union.
Brexit is a vivid example of how one crisis can generate another. The UK’s key motive was the growing flow of migrants from the EU. In their turn, populists in Austria, Denmark, Germany, France and the Netherlands have used Brexit and the continuing migration crisis as a way to shatter the EU and to set the Europeans against immigrants.
In 2016, the migration crisis offered the EU a complex of challenges: to close illegal routes. to provide shelter to those who have already got into Europe and to reform the sheltering rules. As a result, we see how the Warsaw-based poor Frontex is evolving into an all-European border protection agency. The Balkan route has already been closed. The Turks have agreed to keep refugees in its territory. But quite recently it turned out that the Balkan route has moved to the Mediterranean. In Oct 2016 alone, as many as 27,500 people migrated from Libya to Italy. The last terrorist attack in Berlin has shown that this route is quite dangerous.
And while the EU was distributing refugees among its members in line with its solidarity policy, some forces launched a regionalization process. One of them was once harmless Visegrád Group (V4) – Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. In 2016, the V4 leaders urged the EU to revise its migration policy and refused to receive refugees according to the quotas. Even more, after Brexit the Polish-Hungarian conservative duet decided to change the form of the Union. It was a signal for them in Brussels that they could no longer ignore V4, especially as they have no legal levers for pressuring Poland.
V4 interpreted Brexit as a vote against the ruling elite and a sign that the EU can be changed. The Polish and Hungarian leaders think that the EU can go on without liberal values. This view comes from their wish to get a stronger foothold in their countries. V4 had the guts to suggest moving the EU’s center from Brussels to the east.
The only topic consolidating V4 is migration. Today, that force is playing a big role in the EU’s policy but it may lose its influence unless it outlines more goals. Its members are very different and the EU is trying to use this variance. Poland is one more place where the EU is fighting regionalization: today Brussels is actively consolidating Polish oppositionists for legally displacing the ruling conservative nationalist regime at the next parliamentary elections but it will hardly succeed.
2016 has shown that the EU needs to improve its migration, security and economic policies and even its common commercial policy is not perfect. The problems Wallonia faced when negotiating a free trade deal with Canada. After seven years, the talks were close to failure, with the deal still pending EU ratification.
In 2016, the Europeans became even more suspicious of the EU’s common commercial policy. While the EU was negotiating free trade with China, some of its members were actively protesting against that country’s dumping policy in metal production. So, even if the deal with China is made, it may be torpedoed as was Wallonia’s deal with Canada.
Now that the United States and the European Union are very close to a deal on a Transatlantic Free Trade Area, the Americans have elected Trump, who is against free trade. So, now the Europeans will have to wait and see what the new U.S. president will do.
The past year’s debates have shown that in the EU there is no unanimity on how to revise its trade policy. Some members are advocates of free trade, while the others support protectionism. Much here depends on the results of the forthcoming elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany. Until then left- and right-wing populists will try to turn this topic into their advantage. But by doing this, they will undermine the EU’s image.
The poll held in the EU in July 2016 has shown that only 33% of the Europeans trust the EU and its institutions against 40% in the spring 2015. A few months before elections, the Dutch right-wing leader Geert Wilders and the French and Eurosceptic leader Marine Le Pen enjoy the highest ratings in their countries. Even in Germany right-wing forces are on the rise. The employment of former President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso by Goldman Sachs, a U.S. group having a very bad reputation in Europe, has become one more blow on the EU’s authority. It has caused Barrosogate, a scandal that mobilized an unprecedented alliance of NGOs, journalists, academia, the EU ombudsman and MEPs who all argued that the EU leaders put business and their own careers before citizens’ interests. In Barrosogate many have seen a stimulus for EU reform.
If we consider the EU’s reactions to the current challenges rather than the challenges as such, we will see that in 2016, the Europeans tried to drastically change their attitude. After Brexit, France, Germany, Italy and Spain realized the need for closer military integration and independent defense policy. Those four might become the core of the EU’s new military policy. A common European defense policy would free Germany from the internal and external restrictions imposed on it after the WWII. In Nov 2016, the EU decided to establish a European military headquarters. Federica Mogherini later explained that it would not be an EU army but some noncombatant military missions, who will react to crises in the periphery – in Africa or the Middle East. The European Commission also suggests coordinating military research and military purchases.
The terrorist attacks in Belgium, Germany and France have alarmed the Europeans, who no longer believe that their governments can protect them. Some of them suggest that single defense and security policies are just a way for them in Brussels to restore people’s trust in EURO and to pave the way for a stronger monetary union. During its last summit in Bratislava in Sept 2016, the EU outlined its homework tasks, with the first solutions to be made known at the next summit in Mar 2017. Such decisions will usher the polycrisis into the next year. In 2017, the EU will face even more problems and will still be able to control them. Even more, it will try to solve them. So, the situation is not as hopeless as it may seem.
EADaily’s European Bureau