“There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.”
It seems that this quote, attributed to Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, is becoming more and more appropriate for describing the constant flow of important events. Europe in 2017 is no different. This year made few winners and pushed many politicians into inconvenient compromises.
Brexit – Divorce Preparations
“Brexit means Brexit” was British Prime Minister Theresa May’s mantra when talking about divorce negotiations with Brussels and facing the lack of progress, after announcing that the UK will exit the bloc by the end of March of 2019. The EU leaders countered with a different question: What does Brexit mean? Led by European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker, they didn’t give in to London’s biggest demand: talking about the divorce deal and future trade relations simultaneously.
After months of all sides playing hardball, the EU finally agreed to move the process to the post-Brexit trade phase. One of those “weeks where decades happen” was the first week of December, when it first looked like the two sides struck a deal until May walked out because of coalition fears. After some fine-tuning, the agreement was made, and the two sides were able proceed to trade negotiations, arguably the more difficult part.
For the European Union, these developments meant the beginning of another important step: its future without London. This presents a logistical problem, as two of the agencies are situated in London and will need to be moved elsewhere, but it also shifts the balance of power.
Most of the important decisions in the EU have traditionally been made in the triangle of Berlin, Paris and London, the three biggest economies in the bloc. After some political changes in Germany and France (more on that later), the internal deal-making dynamics of Brussels seem destined to change more than at any time in recent memory.
Juncker’s Commission mandate is scheduled to end in 2019, and the race to succeed him is probably already on in the Strasbourg and Brussels hallways. That process will depend on the European Parliament election results in 2019, as the rise of the right will probably hit the EP (conservative) bloc. Those elections will be the first significant EU activity without Great Britain, so, unfortunately for the Brussels press corps, there will be no more Nigel Farage’s rhetorical shenanigans in the EP (unless he somehow acquires German citizenship and joins the run for the Alternative for Germany [AfD], which wouldn’t be the strangest plot twist in his political career).
Catalonia – What Now?
While the Brexit crisis seems to be calming in the final weeks of 2017, one hotspot opened during the year doesn’t seem close to wrapping up. Catalan independence efforts are nothing new — some even say that they originated in the 18th or 19th century. However, in 2017, the Catalan government decided that, after a series of unofficial votes on the issue, it was time for real action.
The 1O (1st of October) Referendum, calling for Catalonia’s independence from Spain, passed after a very tense parliamentary session. Leading up to the referendum, Spanish political parties more closely aligned with the central government claimed that the attempt was unconstitutional and would be annulled.
These arguments didn’t convince regional leaders, headed by Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, to cancel the plans to hold the referendum. After raids, seizures of electoral material and an increased police presence, Referendum Sunday came. Built-up tensions led to clashes in the streets and many injuries. (The regional government claimed the number to be close to 1,000, but that number is disputed.) The option for secession won overwhelmingly, but voter turnout was low — under 50 percent.
Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution from 1970 allows the central government to take over control of rogue regions, and Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy used it to ouster the Catalan leaders, who responded with a unilateral declaration of independence. The Madrid government arrested many of the leaders, while Puigdemont fled to Brussels, citing fears for his own safety.
From an outsiders’ point of view, it seems that everybody involved in this crisis made lots of bad decisions. Both sides of the conflict underestimated the resolve of the other. For now, it looks like Rajoy paid a higher price: his party lost its support in Catalonia, and it will have very little representation in the next regional parliament, while the independence coalition won enough votes to keep the majority. However, whether they will keep the majority is a different dilemma. Some of their representatives are still detained, while at least three are with Puigdemont in Brussels. If they return to Barcelona, there is a possibility that they will be arrested.
Whatever course this political process takes, the reality is that, from now on, nothing in Spain and Europe will be the same. Both sides showed what they are capable of, and international powers, especially the EU, showed their own stance towards independence movements.
Members of these movements in Scotland and Catalonia wanted to secede from their countries, but still remain a part of the bloc. The Brussels administration has indicated that this is not possible. Despite a lack of allies outside of the country, and their problems within Spain, the Catalans still insist they will continue to fight for independence. This crisis doesn’t look like it’s going away anytime soon.
Terrorism – Barcelona, Manchester, London and St. Petersburg Under Attack
Terrorism was a key theme of 2014, 2015 and 2016. This year, the attacks didn’t stop. In fact, they became more unpredictable than ever, using different methods than Europe had come to expect. Months before the Catalan referendum, Barcelona was in the global spotlight because of a series of attacks in which 16 people died.
The biggest incident happened when Younes Abouyaaqoub rammed a van through pedestrians at La Rambla, a popular tourist area. Police claim he was part of a much bigger plot targeting La Sagrada Familia church. All members of the terrorist cell were arrested or killed, either by accidental explosion or in shootouts with police.
The world was also in horror when a suicide bomber hit fans exiting a concert of U.S. pop star Ariana Grande in Manchester. Twenty-two people died in the explosion. The lone wolf attacker, Salman Ramadan Abedi, used a nail bomb. It was the deadliest attack in the UK since the 2005 London bombings. The suicide bomber was of Lybian descent and born in Manchester. Investigators found that he was in contact with Islamic State militants.
Two bombs also detonated in the St. Petersburg metro in April, killing at least 15 people. ISIS made threatening videos against Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was visiting the city on that day. Russia is about to host the FIFA World Cup in 2018, so since the incident, the country has been on high terror alert. Members of a new terrorist cell were arrested in December, with the government claiming that they were planning attacks, and that the CIA had provided key information about the terrorist plans.
Aside from the Manchester bombing, the UK was hit two more times this year, both in London. A car driven by Khalid Masood rammed through pedestrians on the Westminster Bridge, killing four, before stopping at the gates of the Parliament. Masood then got out of the vehicle and killed one policeman, before being subdued. In another incident, a group of four attackers killed eight people with knives on the London Bridge in June.
The growing number of attacks by vehicles (one of which happened in Berlin in December of last year) brought new security measures, especially at German Christmas markets. Concrete blocks were masked as gifts or sculptures so they would not raise any further alarm. Those security measures were nicknamed “Merkel Lego,” a clear allusion to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open border policy.
Germany – The Election Everybody Lost (Except the Far-Right)
The “Merkel Lego” internet storm concluded an unusually unsuccessful year for the German Chancellor, who has become Europe’s number one political figure in recent years. The biggest dent in Merkel’s armor were the results of the general elections in September. Her CDU party won the highest number of votes, but it was immediately clear that her road to another mandate will not be easy. The reason: a big spike in popularity for the far-right AfD after an unfavorable response on the part of the German public to Merkel’s immigration policies.
The first option was a so-called “Jamaica Coalition,” named after the colors of the parties who would participate (black for CDU, green for the Greens and yellow for the liberal Free Democrats). The talks ultimately failed, so in order to stop the redo elections, Merkel and the leaders of SPD, the party that lost most of its support after naming Martin Schulz as its leader, agreed to discuss a deal. The Great Coalition wasn’t considered an option on election day for the SPD, but it seems that their sentiments have changed.
The CDU-SPD talks look set to last for at least the first two months of 2018, but experts and pundits expect the two sides to make a deal. Even if Merkel manages to hold on for another mandate, she doesn’t look like the cornerstone of the EU, a reputation she won in the previous decade. With the far-right now having a place in the political mainstream and in the Bundestag to criticize her every move, she now looks set to be more focused on German politics, instead of greater European politics, which will leave more space for people like Emanuel Macron.
France – The Era of Macron
This time last year, the current president of France was relatively unknown outside of his own country. Although he was a young rising star and a minister in the government, the start of Macron’s campaign to take the place of the head of state wasn’t top news anywhere. That all changed when the two biggest traditional French parties, the Socialists and the Republicans, failed to find exciting candidates to counter the wave of support for well-known right-wing populist Marine Le Pen.
- May: Macron Sworn In as President of France Becoming Youngest French Leader since Napoleon Bonaparte
In fear that she might take power after years of supporting a political agenda that many saw as divisive, supporters from the left and right of the ideological spectrum threw their support behind Macron and his new Republic on the Marche movement.
This was enough for him to score a decisive win in the election, and also earn him a good reputation outside of French borders. The former Rothschild investment banker (yes, the conspiracy theories write themselves here) showed a similar type of rhetoric and charisma to former U.S. President Barack Obama, and many started to see him as an important player on the world stage, unlike his predecessor, Francois Hollande.
Despite a decrease in popularity at home because of labor laws, Macron welcomed that role, attempting to impose himself on important issues, like U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, when he offered American scientists the opportunity to come and work in France using a Trump-esque slogan: Let’s make our planet great again. He also tried to serve as a mediator in the crisis involving Lebanon Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Saudi Arabia.
Generally, Macron has been involved in every important decision the EU has taken since he took office and has taken a very proactive approach with other world leaders, which is not something we have seen very often from French leaders in recent memory. His deal with Merkel was essential for creating the EU security doctrine, which could lead to the formation of a European military in the future.
Poland – The Odd One Out
Macron was also the Western whip against the new members from Eastern Europe, calling for a joint labor rulebook, in order to stop the practice of workers being officially employed in countries with lower minimum wages, while actually working in France or Germany. He was especially critical of Poland.
Bulk of his criticism was directed at the Warsaw leaders and members of the conservative PiS party, who planned the justice reforms and succesfully passed them in December. Essentially, the Polish President Andrzej Duda now has the power to influence the composition of the highest court in the country, equivalent to the U.S. Supreme Court. Duda called on this precedent in explaining the decision.
Essentially, the Polish President Andrzej Duda now has the power to influence the composition of the highest court in the country, equivalent to the U.S. Supreme Court. Duda called on this precedent in explaining the decision.
The European Commission wasn’t convinced with that argument, so EC Vice President Frans Timmermans said that the EU’s executive branch intends to use the Lisbon Agreement Article 7 to suspend Poland from the decision-making process. This initiative was stopped by the Hungarian government, a close Polish ally and member of the Visegrad 4 group. Poland has since elected a new Prime Minister, with Mateusz Morawiecki taking the office from Beata Szidlo. He has said he is ready to talk to European officials during the next Summit.
Bad relationships between Poland’s conservatives and Brussels are nothing new, with Timmermans claiming that at least 13 laws adopted by Warsaw are against EU norms. The Visegrad 4 also voted against migrant quotas and have tried to close their borders from refugees. As every member of the bloc has veto powers, the leverage of these countries is already very big, but they might be joined by another unlikely ally in Vienna.
Austria – The Only Possible Coalition
In the final weeks of the year, the rise of conservative populists materialized with one of the bloc members coming to power. The FPO (Freedom Party of Austria) made a deal with the OVP, led by Sebastian Kurz, after the Social Democrats declined to enter talks and moved to the opposition. The charismatic former Austrian foreign minister became the youngest European head of government as a result of that deal, but most of the coverage was concentrated on the return of FPO to the cabinet.
Their rise isn’t a new event in Austrian politics, as their candidate Norbert Hofer won second place in recent presidential elections. The FPO won the elections in 2000 and formed a coalition government. That event 17 years ago sparked massive demonstrations in Vienna and sanctions from the EU.
Now, the reception was far less fiery. There were protests in the Austrian capital on inauguration day, but they calmed down quickly. Kurz talked with Juncker days after becoming the Chancellor, and they both confirmed that the country remains committed to the Union.
There are bound to be differences, however, with the FPO opposing sanctions against Russia and its position on immigration being close to those of the Polish and Hungarian governments. This will be a new front inside the EU, a group of countries that will be in a position to really influence the direction in which it is heading. They are now part of the mainstream, after years of isolation, and they are in that position in the period in which the bloc is going through its biggest reforms since it was founded.
Eventful New 2018, dear Europe?
This was one of those years when you got a breaking news notification more or less every day. Europe in 2018 looks set to continue on that path, as major changes in the dynamics of the EU will surely have a ripple effect everywhere. Shortly after Brexit vote, one editorial in Britain claimed that the UK had abdicated its position of global power.
As the U.S. appears to be becoming more and more isolated under Trump, there is an open place for European leaders at the highest level of global politics. With the reforms that the EU and its key members will have to make internally, there is a lingering question: Are they ready for a leading role? The next 12 months will be an indicator, but for Europe in general, 2019 will be a make-or-break year, with Brexit officially over and a new European Commission. It is truly a year where a century could happen.