At the start of the year, former Diplomatic Editor of The Times Michael Binyon outlines the challenges facing the continent
Will the European Union survive the coming year? It faces unprecedented challenges. Not only will its members have to begin the difficult and possibly acrimonious talks with Britain on the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU; but key governments also face elections at home in which populist right-wing parties are likely to make big gains and demand changes in the way the EU is run.
On top of this, Europe will have to learn how to deal with President Trump and a US administration that feels little attachment to its European partners. The continent will also be buffeted by the continuing influx of migrants and refugees, and its fragile agreement with Turkey to stop refugees reaching the EU may well collapse. Fears of terrorist infiltration will make all governments nervous of spectacular attacks on their cities and citizens. And many EU voters are likely to push for a permanent re-imposition of border controls, thus destroying the Schengen border-free arrangements and one of the key tangible achievements of the EU.
The 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which established the original Common Market, falls in March. It is unlikely to be a time of much celebration. Instead of building an ‘ever closer union,’ most of the EU’s 28 members are now openly calling for a return of sovereignty from Brussels and are questioning the very basis on which EU decisions are made. And the euro, once seen as a symbol of Europe’s economic integration, has been widely blamed for Europe’s sluggish economic growth in recent years. In 2017 it will again come under pressure, especially in Greece and other poorer countries hit by austerity. Voters across the continent want more effective policies to reduce unemployment, greater economic autonomy and more vigorous measures to boost Europe’s sluggish growth.
All this will be reflected in the elections that are due in the Netherlands, France, Germany and possibly also Italy later this year. The first big test will come in March, when the Dutch go to the polls. The Netherlands was one of the six founding members of the Common Market, and was always seen as one of the EU’s most ardently pro-European members. But in recent years the Dutch have become deeply disillusioned. The immigration of a large number of Muslims, mainly from North Africa, has destabilised Dutch society, and several murders and violent attacks on Dutch politicians in the past 15 years have opened a big debate on the failure to integrate Muslim immigrants.
The populist demand for a tougher line has been led by Geert Wilders, a right-winger who openly espouses racist anti-Muslim policies. Although he was recently convicted in a Dutch court of inciting racial hatred, this has done nothing to lessen his appeal. Opinion polls suggest he may well end up with more votes than any other party. And the other parties will be forced to adopt some of his hardline attitudes if they are to form a viable coalition with him.
Similar hardline attitudes to Muslims and immigration are bound to dominate the coming French presidential election, where Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front, is almost certain to be one of the two leading candidates after the first round of elections in April. She has openly praised Britain’s Brexit vote and promises to offer France a similar referendum on whether it wants to remain in the EU.
Though many thought, after the victory of Donald Trump, that she would romp home on the same wave of populist anti-establishment feeling, she now faces a tough opponent in François Fillon, who has won the nomination of the mainstream conservative party. He, too, is promising a tough line on immigrants, but he has no intention of taking France out of the EU. He will almost certainly win most of the votes from the Socialists in the second round of elections, as the various Socialist candidates will suffer from the massive unpopularity of President Hollande (who will not himself stand again) and the widespread perception that the Socialists have made a terrible mess of the French economy. No Socialist candidate is likely to make it through to the second round of voting.
Nevertheless, if Fillon does see off the Le Pen challenge, he too will have to take a tough anti-Brussels line if he is to reflect French public opinion. This could undermine much of the fabric of today’s EU, which for years was dominated by the strongly integrationist views of France and Germany.
No one will be watching the result of the French vote more closely than Angela Merkel, the powerful German chancellor, who is running for a fourth term in the autumn. Despite the massive opposition to her policy of allowing almost a million Syrian refugees to settle in Germany, she still has few credible political challengers. And she has backtracked on her open-door policies: Germany, Austria and its Balkan neighbours all support a much more restrictive policy.
Nevertheless, the autumn vote is likely to see a huge rise in support for the Alternative for Germany, a party that began as opposition to the euro but has since broadened its appeal with tough talk about immigration.
What Germany fears most is that a combination of worries about terrorism, anger at Europe’s failure to deal with the immigration crisis and the possible collapse of the deal she negotiated last year with Turkey to stop migrants crossing into Greece will all coalesce into a strong anti-EU line. For Germany, whose entire postwar political rehabilitation is bound up with its European identity, this would be a disaster.
And because Mrs Merkel is widely perceived as the most powerful politician in Europe, the worries of other countries about austerity, economic stagnation and immigration are all now focused on her.
Polls show that no country, apart from Britain, yet has a majority for leaving the EU. But Germany will find it very hard to continue to support political and economic integration when all its neighbours want the opposite. Several of the newer EU members, especially Poland and Hungary, are also seeing a resurgence of nationalism and an anti-EU backlash. Cutting back the powers of Brussels will therefore be a key demand, and may lead to radical proposals to restructure the way Europe is governed.
A loss of confidence in the entire EU project – the dominating ideal of Western Europe for the past half century – comes at a time when Europe needs cohesion to deal with Trump in the West and Putin in the East. The likely rapprochement between the two will be a big challenge to European liberalism. It may herald an unwanted return to trade wars, the Cold War and ‘spheres of influence’ – bad news especially for Ukraine, but also for the nervous Baltic countries, which are fearful of Moscow’s intentions.
And in the middle of all this turmoil will come Theresa May, Britain’s Prime Minister, trying to arrange an amicable divorce from Europe. Few will have time for her. The main problem is that Britain’s own government does not yet seem to know what it wants or how to set about achieving continued access to the single market without accepting the other rules of the EU club. For many, the British issue will be a sideshow, as they struggle to reform the EU itself. But the likely bitterness and deadlocked negotiations may mean that one of Europe’s biggest economies, and a political force with a permanent vote in the UN Security Council, will no longer be there to help the EU in its own internal struggles. It will not be a happy year for Brussels or for anyone still yearning for European unity.