Europe’s year of solidarity – and surprises – ahead

Europe’s year of solidarity – and surprises – ahead

The political scene across Europe will be a series of contradictions in 2018. At the same time the continent leaves behind 2017 more confident and stable, from the united front on Brexit talks to the new Merkel-Macron engine starting to fire on all cylinders, the voices of dissent are still echoing around – and it’s not just the sound of ardent Brexiteers.

Euroscepticism may not have grabbed the top seats of leadership, but 2017 has once more been testament to the fact that any power is enough for populism to re-shape the narrative of mainstream political parties. A tough policy on refugees here, a bit of anti-establishment knife-twisting there. Despite growing prosperity across Europe, there’s still enough discontent and mistrust of the political classes to swing the continent to the right.

In Germany, the AfD, founded just four years ago when it failed to win a single seat in the German national elections, this time round won 94 seats, and is the country’s third largest party.

A far-right party, the FPO, is in coalition again in Austria after a decade away from power. Then, it caused Austria to be frozen out of close European circles. These days, a party in power in the heart of Europe that’s anti-migration and anti-Islam is slowly becoming the new normal.

And in France, staunchly pro-Europe, centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron saw off the far-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen, but she still managed to get nearly 11 million people to vote for her – many weary of a sluggish economy and concerned about French identity.

2017 was also a year that saw terror grip major European cities again – in London, Manchester and Barcelona, claiming dozens of lives.

Angela Merkel Records New Year's Address
The pressure will be on German chancellor Angela Merkel to form a new government, after months of political uncertainty

2018 will start with pressure on Angela Merkel to form a new government, more than 3 months after the September elections. Mrs Merkel knows time is of the essence. As she said in her New Year address, “the world is not waiting for us”. She is due to meet SPD leader Martin Schulz at the end of this week to begin open-ended discussions on what next, ranging from a new coalition, propping up a minority Merkel government, or the prospect of new elections, which would deliver more or less exactly the same result.

Schulz may well have to swallow his pride and grudgingly accept to a new Grand Coalition with the CDU, fully aware that it will mean political suicide for his personal leadership and his party. But in doing so, he would be saving the unity of Europe’s largest and most powerful nation — and prop up Angela Merkel’s slipping crown, in the absence of no obvious successor to her yet.

Merkel has the challenge of winning over a growing number of voters who no longer think she’s up to the job. One poll published by WELT newspaper astonishingly showed that nearly 50 per cent of Germans want her to resign immediately. Just 10 per cent think she should remain.

Imagine for a moment the irony that, after the existential crisis of the Eurozone and the enormity of the (ongoing) migrant crisis that saw the door open to more than a million refugees into Germany in 2015, the relatively small matter of national elections would see her off.

However, Merkel can seek relief in the renewed sense of purpose for Europe through her close alliance with French president Emmanuel Macron. Both share a view for ambitious eurozone reforms. Yes, they are strong on style, but little on substance for now.

Grandstanding on the future of Europe has been Macron’s best trump card since being elected last May. His uncontrollably lengthy speeches and grandiose ideas are all well and good, but 2018 will be the year his promise is put to the test – with proof of results.

In his New Year’s speech, Macron said: “Europe is good for France – France can’t succeed without a strong Europe”.

After storming to victory, Macron administered the bitter medicine of reforms to France’s mammoth-sized state, saying he would do the job of turning the country’s labour market, regulations and economic model on their head, where his many predecessors had failed – or had simply been too frightened.

He said it would take “two years” to see the fruits of his labour reforms, pushed through in spite of determined, albeit dwindling, union anger.

European Council Leaders Meet in Brussels
Macron has captured the imagination of a reinvigorated Europe and a more prosperous France – with his popularity ratings starting to improve

France under its youngest leader since Napoleon has unmistakably undergone a growth spurt on the international stage. Macron has been flexing diplomatic muscle in Africa and in the Middle East, talking of French becoming the world’s first language, as well as boosting business confidence abroad. The 40-year-old president fixed meetings with both US President Donald Trump and the Russian leader Vladimir Putin soon after entering the Elysée, as France begins to rival Germany as the heavyweight in Europe and on the global diplomacy front.

Mr Macron still has to pass the test of speaking for all French people – addressing the millions who had felt left behind by globalisation and voted for Le Pen in May last year, and who regard him as an out-of-touch leader.

2018, so Macron says, will be the year of the “French renaissance”. In his TV address, he told the nation that they are “capable of the exceptional”. It’s the language of aspiration that a more optimistic France wants to listen to.

With a monopoly on power in the National Assembly and the first modern French president to reverse a continually downward popularity trend after a few months in office, this year looks bright for the so-called ‘Jupiter’ president.

Europe has never been a stranger to throwing up a few surprises, and in Italy, with populist parties nearer to power than ever before, March’s election could provide the EU with a moment for more nail-biting.

Opinion polls predict the eurosceptic, anti-establishment Five Star Movement emerging as the largest party, ahead of the ruling centre-left Democratic Party led by former Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, and a resurgent Forza Italia in third place with the former ‘bunga-bunga’ leader Silvio Berlusconi at the helm.

Italy’s current prime minister Paolo Gentiloni says “there is a long way to go” in the country’s economic recovery

But remember, this is Italy, a country much better known for coalition deals than strong and stable government. Italy has had 64 governments since World War Two.

The most likely result seems to be a hung parliament, which leaves potentially months of protracted talks and uncertainty ahead for financial markets and the entire eurozone.

Italy has emerged from the worst of the financial crisis, returning to growth, but it remains sluggish. The influx of migrants is still a big issue which will dominate the election agenda, despite a fall of a third in sea arrivals in 2017, according to Italy’s interior minister.

Berlusconi will be a figure to watch in bringing the sides together to thrash out a coalition deal. But the former prime minister, who has a tax fraud conviction that includes a ban on serving public office, can’t run for the top job, or even stand for parliament.

Let the games begin.

When Mariano Rajoy used an end-of-year press conference to say 2017 “hasn’t been an easy year at all” for Spain, he wasn’t joking.

The twists and turns in the battle between Barcelona and Madrid show no signs of ending. The intensely dramatic and bitterly divisive fallout from October’s illegal independence referendum has created Spain’s worst political crisis for nearly 40 years, with neither side looking likely to gather around the table for much-needed dialogue any time soon.

The incredible scenes of police violence on 1st October referendum day should have been enough of a wake-up call that Spain’s democracy has gone awry.

When Rajoy suspended Catalan autonomy and called snap elections after the regional parliament voted to unilaterally declare independence at the end of October, he took a gamble. He believed he could catch pro-independence parties on the back foot and deprive them of a parliamentary majority that they saw as a mandate for their break from the rest of Spain, and against Madrid’s “repression”.

After 21st December’s vote, however, we’re back at square one. The balance of pro-and anti-independence forces hasn’t changed – and splits more or less down the middle, leaving families, friends and colleagues incredibly divided.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy says the unilateral declaration of independence in Catalonia was “destabilising”

Pro-independence parties are now in open disagreement about forming a government and who should be its president. Deposed Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont remains in self-imposed exile in Brussels, as his party discusses the possibility of investing him as president via video link, such is the risk of him being arrested as soon as he touches down in Spain.

The question of what Mr Puigdemont does next will not be easy to answer. The second option, former vice-president Oriol Junqueras, is one of eight Catalan leaders in custody or in exile awaiting trial on charges of sedition. As the legal process kicks off, there’ll be speculation once more of just how politically-motivated Spain’s justice system has become.

2017 exposed the silent majority of Catalans who are against independence, proud of both their Catalan and Spanish identities. The anti-independence party Ciutadans has ascended with each election – winning December’s vote with 11 more seats and a 25% vote share – but has no chance arithmetically of forming a government.

In opposition though, Ciutadans has the chance to moderate the ambitions of the region’s next secessionist government, by telling them they don’t speak for all Catalans, and pointing out that independence looks increasingly long-term in ambition, and fraught with risk, least of all for business.

Indeed, the separatist camp is divided about the next steps on independence, with one side pushing for the republic to be declared immediately, the other stepping back adopting a more moderate tone.

Carles Puigdemont remains in Brussels – but for how much longer?

The conflict has in some part been of Rajoy’s own making. His long-term intransigence – hoping any crisis simply disappears if you don’t touch it – has done nothing to bring about a solution. What’s more, his PP party faired the worst ever in the region’s elections, coming last with just 4% of the vote.

More than 80% of Catalans want an agreed referendum – and while the elections showed that nothing has changed, it wasn’t a vote for the status quo either. Both sides need to talk desperately to turn down the political temperature, but giving in to the secessionists for Rajoy would be anathema. With growing speculation about a snap general election, Spain’s constitutional crisis over Catalonia looks set to bring even more surprises throughout 2018.

In March, Russian votes for its next president. But the token speculation ends there. Vladimir Putin is definitely heading for another term that by the end, will have seen him in power for a quarter of a century.

Putin presides over a continually weak economy, creating growing discontent on the streets, which in turn has led authorities to crush dissent even harder. Most recently, it resulted in banning prominent opposition leader Alexei Navalny from running for president after being convicted of embezzlement.

The all-too-predictable script to Russian politics to one side, Putin’s eyes will be fixed on the big prize – pulling off this summer’s World Cup, to be held in cities spanning the country. It will be another assertion of Russia in global affairs, and without a doubt an unforgettable summer of football.

Theresa May Leaves Downing Street For Prime Minister's Questions
Theresa May will have to get ready to see off more rebellions in the lengthy set of Brexit talks ahead this year

Finally, it will be decision time for Brexit. There’s more than a year to go before the UK formally leaves the European Union in March 2019, but the deal firstly on transition and then the future relationship will have to be thrashed out in good time before autumn, when it gets passed to the European Parliament, which wields a veto on the final deal.

The agreement reached at the beginning of December on phase one of “sufficient progress” on the divorce deal is merely the start of a long road ahead. Around the EU table, there’s renewed confidence in Theresa May in having been able to square the circle of the Irish border after the curveball thrown by the party that keeps her in power, the DUP. But the Irish question hasn’t disappeared altogether. Brussels will repeat its usual refrain in demanding more detail as Mrs May battles with squabbles in her Cabinet about what the end position should look like.

In her New Year message, the Prime Minister herself admitted this year had been a rollercoaster ride – “of course any year brings its challenges”, but she remained upbeat.

Indeed, May finished the year in a stronger position than many could have possibly imagined, after several Cabinet resignations, a parliamentary sex scandal, losing her majority in June’s snap election and dogged determination from both Remainer rebels and staunch Brexiteers on the backbenches that want her to change course.

A Cabinet reshuffle on the cards – a way of her shoring up her position in office – probably won’t be enough to stop the continued speculation about her future. There’s no knowing where the next crisis could possibly come from…

2018 will be decision time for Brexit

Though May made clear Brexit was “crucial”, it was “not the limit of our ambitions”, she said. But if Mrs May wants a decent deal, there’ll be far too many Brussels talks and late-night Commons sittings to tackle anything else.

The strength of unity within Europe over the past year has shocked many – after a prolonged period of weak growth that brought a tide of Euroscepticism.

The doom-sayers who predicted more EU nations would follow Britain out of the bloc were wrong. Europe has a new sense of purpose, and successive elections have cemented strong leadership – Merkel and Macron the obvious examples  – who have addressed migration and extremism head on instead of ignoring it.

But populism is no longer the exception – it is the political mainstream.

It makes the guessing-game a trivial pursuit – because this year Euroscepticism could finally be a vote-winner.

The big test for populism in Europe in 2017

The big test for populism in Europe in 2017

If 2016 was the year of the unpredictable and the rise of populism, 2017 looks to be the year that much of that ground work now plays out.

It will be likely dominated by Donald Trump as the world watches his move into the White House and tears up the rule book of how to govern with a new style of shock politics, protectionism, straight talking and Twitter diplomacy.

Elsewhere, British Prime Minister Theresa May will be determined to prove to her critics that she can start the UK’s exit from the EU – one of the biggest earthquakes of 2016 – in an orderly fashion when she triggers divorce proceedings through Article 50 by the end of March.

Will Mrs May finally lay on the table what exactly she wants – membership of the single market, staying in the customs union, and so on? These are monumental decisions that will affect every one of our lives.

She will have to be ready for the reaction of EU leaders, who will no sooner be ready to throw down any whiff of “cherry-picking”. Each country will each have their own grievances, least of all a need to keep their own popularity in check back home.

Brexit hitting the headlines across Europe last year

May has the impossible task of pleasing those in her party and across the country who voted not only leave but remain, and across Europe she’ll be trying desperately hard to get allies to back her Brexit wish list.

But the EU will be determined to show that Brexit isn’t the only priority – the continent after all is still nursing the hangover of the 2008 financial crisis, and trying to muddle its way through its policy on migrants – which has all but disappeared from the headlines.

There will likely be a lot of back and forth – concession on one hand and demand on the other – which could mean 2017 is the year of inaction, even anticlimax, for Brexit.

This has always been classic EU territory though – the approach of just about getting by.

The prime minister will first need to see who will be those leaders around the negotiating table, following decisive elections in some of Europe’s biggest democracies.

All eyes will be on France for the next five months to see how the political mood there will determine the results of its presidential election.

The expectation will be that while populism is exerting great pressure on the political conversation, it’s yet to yield truly significant results in the biggest national elections.

The far right in France has been boosted by many different factors, least of all an historically unpopular incumbent, François Hollande, who has ruled himself out from running for a second term. His Socialist party looks disunited – with no clear frontrunner in its own primary elections – and all opinion polls indicating it won’t make it past the first round of France’s presidential vote.

France’s likely new president from May – centre-right François Fillon

The surprise candidate could be former economy minister Emmanuel Macron, who has sought to capture the tricky centre-ground of politics. His unconventional style – never having been elected to office or joined a political party – is gathering momentum, but has he simply laid the ground for a more serious run next time round? In such a crowded political spectrum, it may prove difficult for Macron to unite traditional left voters around his start-up campaign.

But the focus will be firmly on the Front National, for whom a victory has always been seen as impossible. Everybody has always said the two-round voting system is fundamentally rigged against the FN. Both left and right merely gang up in a tactical move to prevent the far-right from gaining enough ground.

But we’re living in very different times, and while the polls give centre-right hopeful François Fillon two-thirds of the vote against Le Pen in the second round, her softening of the party image, a longstanding disaffection with mainstream politicians and the feeling that globalisation has bred great inequalities mean her party is gathering support like never before.

Le Pen’s focus on identity politics at a time when more than 230 people have been killed through terrorist attacks in the last 18 months has growing appeal for some French voters who want a hard line on Islam, immigration and security.

le pen tweet.JPG
Marine Le Pen said Donald Trump’s victory gave hope for her presidential campaign

If you still believe the polls however, France will elect centre-right former prime minister Fillon – keenly labelled a Putin supporter and Thatcher admirer. He has promised a liberal economic policy, huge cuts to the public sector and a ‘shock’ at the top of France’s sclerotic political system. His main priorities will be to shore up a failing economy, bring down relatively high unemployment and an unmanageably large government debt – and more challenging yet, make French people feel safer.

We could well be in for a surprise result in May. Be sure to mind that gap in the opinion polls for the months to come. Fillon is a skilled, experienced politician who thinks he knows how to administer the medicine of change to France – but don’t underestimate the rogue nature of polling and those who don’t even normally vote who could sway the result in Ms Le Pen’s favour.

A Le Pen victory would have unknown consequences politically across Europe. It could spell the end as we know it for the EU which she says has made French people poorer and under threat from terrorism.

The stakes existentially for the union this year could not be higher on this one election alone.

Over in Germany, voters in elections in the autumn of this year will in all probability realise Angela Merkel is the only candidate capable of steering the EU’s largest economy – and arguably the 27 other member states – through still turbulent waters. But as we’ve seen with her recent announcement to ban the full-face veil and criticism of her domestic migrant policy, Merkel is feeling the pressure like never before from both outside her ranks with the buoyant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party and within her coalition government.

Angela Merkel will be hopeful of a fourth term in office


The right-wing nationalist AfD party, founded in 2013 as merely an anti-euro party, has turned its focus to the surge in immigration in previous years and frames Islam as ‘not German’. It has so far made strong gains in regional votes. Polls suggest it has around 12% support nationally, and it looks set to play the security card even more after December’s Christmas market attack in Berlin, which killed twelve, and other jihadi-related terror on German soil last year which has left some Germans seeing refugees as the problem.

Angela Merkel’s popularity is some way ahead of her European counterparts and despite saying this election will be “tough like no other”, her likely election win will bring her to an unrivalled sixteen years in power.

Yes, she will lose seats to her majority, and yes, the AfD will enter the Bundestag, Germany’s national parliament, but Merkel will escape largely unscathed with the promise of more security measures for Germans, a call for greater unity domestically and across Europe, as well as more strong leadership by not cowering to populist rhetoric.

On the global stage, however, with a clear Putin and Trump alliance to come, she will find herself much more isolated.

The Netherlands too will be heading to the polls with the peroxide populist Geert Wilders hopeful that growing momentum in past elections will finally provide electoral victory in March’s vote – offering another political earthquake to a nervous Brussels establishment.

Dutch far-right politician Gerry Wilders

The PVV party, which he founded in 2004, became the third-largest party in elections in 2010. It has captured support from an unease about growing immigration, a pledge to “de-Islamise” the Netherlands, a lack of trust in the ruling government and his promise to take the country out of the European Union.

The latest polls show the PVV as the biggest single party in the country – and Wilders seems to be pushing himself as the candidate saying to voters – “I’m the only one listening to you”. At the very least he’ll have a powerful voice in the Dutch parliament, and at most he could become the country’s next prime minister.

Populism in Europe so far has proven it isn’t a “one-size fits all” – it has been difficult for any commentator to neatly categorise and accurately predict this burgeoning phenomenon.

Austria overwhelmingly rejected far-right candidate Norbert Hofer last November but the populist tide there looks set to shape parliamentary elections and the political discourse for some time yet.

In Italy, a referendum on the political system and on the country’s own leader Matteo Renzi both adhered to and confounded expectations. Voters said no to the changes but the political chaos that was expected didn’t come to pass with the swift appointment of Paolo Gentiloni. He will need to bring strong governance – something Italy isn’t used to – at a much-needed time for stability – through a commitment to reform its vastly expensive parliamentary system and mend its ‘sick-man’ economy which has scarcely grown in the past 20 years.

Turkey’s President Erdogan will be fearful of more attacks this year

Leaders from around the world will be fearful of more violence in Turkey on its doorstep after the most turbulent and bloody year there in recent history, given its crucial geography as a border post to the Middle East and a hotbed for terrorism inside and outside its boundaries.

It will take a lot for President Tayyip Erdogan to convince European leaders he is placing Turkey’s security first, in front of any personal leadership ambitions to become more autocratic by increasing his executive powers (which he’s putting to a referendum). It comes after a year of mass arrests of people from across society following a failed coup attempt in July and an ongoing state of emergency from countless acts of terror.

Support from Erdogan’s nationalist voters will only isolate him in Europe and the Middle East, exacerbating security, political and economic risks. His tight grip on power will equally put the EU’s migrant deal with Turkey into question, which spells trouble for EU leaders up and down the continent.

The person to watch closely this year will be none other than the Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin – the newest – and strongest – global alliance?

With ongoing military provocation in Eastern Europe, his continued support for the conflict in eastern Ukraine and suspected cyber interference in the US elections, the strong man of Russia looks set to be a big winner in 2017 – but a figure at the very centre of more global uncertainty.

Russia’s place as a resurgent global superpower has been well and truly cemented after what is seen as a successful intervention in Syria. Russia’s involvement there will be entrenched further throughout 2017, leading Putin to gain even more influence in Middle Eastern events.

With the US under Trump on-side, Putin will in short be given a lot of room to show his political and military muscle in 2017 and beyond.

2017 will be a year marked by nail-biting elections, as millions of people across Europe decide at the most crude level what sort of politics they want. The backdrop of populism as a march against globalism means strong leadership in Europe will be in much demand but in short supply.

The status quo for a trouble-burdened European continent looks more shaky than ever – and the potential for surprises ever greater.

But could populism be the wake-up call the European Union has needed?