It took a lot of fixing from my colleagues on the foreign desk, but eventually we managed to get a sit-down interview with the Spanish foreign minister Alfonso Dastis at his offices in Madrid — the day before the 1st October 2017 Catalan referendum on independence.
Here’s my interview with Mr Dastis in full, where I ask if there will be a referendum, whether Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy misjudged the situation, and if the Catalan question represents the most serious threat to Spanish democracy in 40 years.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
It was meant to be the “Brexit election”. It turned out for the most part, it was fought on many other issues besides.
It was meant to be the election that handed Theresa May a huge Brexit mandate that would offer her stability through the stormy seas ahead. It hasn’t.
As a result of today’s hung parliament result, there’s now a complete lack of clarity surrounding what sort of Brexit the UK wants, and how long it will have to get it.
The outcome will surely have left Brussels, Paris and Berlin completely shocked, but official words of concern or surprise have yet to emerge from EU corridors.
The first Brexit negotiations, after the triggering of Article 50 at the end of March, begin in just 11 days time. They will decide how often both sides will meet and what will be discussed, carving out a timetable for the next prime minister that will require compromise, great persistence and the backing of the British public.
That timetable could soon be out of the window if a government isn’t formed soon. Yes, the UK does have the option of extending talks, but that would require the agreement of the 27 other EU nations that by and large just want the job done.
In this hugely volatile and ultimately unpredictable seven weeks of campaigning, we have learnt nothing new about the parties’ approach to Brexit. Theresa May laid out her shape of Brexit in her Lancaster Speech a whole six months ago (out of the single market to control migration and by default out of the customs union) back in January, in a 12-point plan – that famed “red, white and blue Brexit”.
The reality is that isn’t anywhere near as simple as “Brexit means Brexit”.
Aside from the prospect of walking away from the table without a deal, and the calamitous cliff-edge consequences that that would bring about, Mrs May has delivered nothing more than soundbites, superficiality and painting the EU as the scapegoat.
Across the political spectrum, Jeremy Corbyn has committed his party to a “jobs-first Brexit”, securing the rights of EU citizens in the initial stages of talks, a Brexit that protects workers’ rights and prevents the UK being “a bargain basement on the shores of Europe”, in the words of the Labour leader. In an interview this morning, he said he’s ready to roll up his sleeves and deliver that vision in government.
The next British prime minister will have to face a fiercely united, emboldened European Union, buoyed by a decisive victory in France for president Emmanuel Macron against the tide of populism and nationalism, and in Germany, the confident figure of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who looks as if she’ll comfortably secure a fourth term in September.
It’s precisely where British politics is out of step with the rest of Europe. Mr Macron faced a presidential election that Mrs May wished she’d had all along – one that she fought as if she were competing in – and in Germany, Merkel is steering the ship of a grand coalition of centre-left and centre-right parties that no-one in British politics would want to put their name to.
The EU-27, as they’re known without the UK, are singing from the same hymn sheet – an idea that would hardly seem possible just a few years ago amid economic chaos and the migrant crisis. Brussels is unequivocal about its transparent approach to Brexit; gone is the temptation of doing country-by-country back-door deals and vicious sniping.
In Brussels, it’s the orderly sort of Brexit preparation that’s a mirror image of the political chaos to come in the next few days in Westminster, as parties thrash out coalition negotiations, with all manner of Brexit permutations now possible – to the confusion of Brussels.
It’s also dependant on, assuming Theresa May steps down, who from the Remain or Leave camps, becomes the next Tory leader. From hard-line Boris Johnson to pragmatic Philip Hammond, the extremes are fields apart.
Ultimately, it is in the interest of both sides to have orderly Brexit negotiations, so it would seem sensible for them to begin only when the UK is ready and the dust is settled on a coalition pact or cross-party agreement – a point which chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier intimated in a tweet.
Yes, the EU wants a quick deal, but one based on fairness – not at the expense of weak UK leadership that leaves both sides ultimately reeling.
It’s an election to fundamentally re-shape France’s prosperity and role in the world.
Until a few months ago, centre-right candidate François Fillon was a virtual shoo-in for becoming France’s next president, after defeating Marine Le Pen in all likelihood by a large margin.
Yet after the fake jobs scandal involving his wife, Fillon’s poll ratings went into free fall and threw the door open for some outside bets to make real progress in the popularity stakes, changing the dynamics of France’s presidential elections to an open race like never before.
In previous French elections, you could have talked confidently of a battle between the two traditional parties of the centre-left and centre-right.
Now the political discourse has changed to extreme left, extreme right and centrist, leaving the contest wide open and unpredictable until the very end. Pollsters reckon the choice of which way to take France next has left around 40% of French people undecided in the final days before Sunday’s first round.
France’s two-round system allows voters to be both ideologically rebellious and politically pragmatic. Sunday’s first round will be fodder for French people who want to protest about immigration, the economy, unemployment and punish the political class.
The second round, however, and the two week interim period, marks a shift in tone and political debate. This is ultimately about making a president, and rhetoric starts to feel a lot more real and serious.
It’s precisely why Marine Le Pen is leading most polls for the first round, before plummeting in the second. Her hardline policies on immigration, the euro and identity still remain in the minority, believe it or not.
The outcome of this election will re-shape France profoundly. The size of its unwieldy state is likely to be the biggest victim – job cuts and downsizing are to come.
Growth will be one of the first action points. Reactivating France’s sclerotic economy and bringing down unemployment, as well as how freely businesses run.
But it will be internationally that France has most to gain. Its standing will be shaped by precisely how pro- or anti-EU its next president leans. By extension, it will define the future of the EU and the euro currency, and perhaps how hard or soft Brexit will be.
It’s why – through a mixture of lucky timing and sheer ingenuity – that unashamedly pro-Europe, pro-tough reform medicine candidate Emmanuel Macron has all the makings of France’s next president.
They proclaim themselves as the leaders of the New Europe. A “free” Europe against Islam, one which calls for the death of the European Union and lauds the victory of Donald Trump. It is a future of Europe that is yet to be realised of course, regardless of the rhetoric in this year of decisive national elections across the continent.
Marine Le Pen was the headline act of a meeting of far-right European populist leaders from Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Austria in the German city of Koblenz, under the banner of a “vision for a Europe of freedom”.
The figures gathered under great security as thousands of demonstrators outside showed their opposition to their right-wing policies with banners and colourful protests.
Here are some takeaways from today’s summit:
1.The Trump effect
It’s been no secret how much far-right party leaders have idolised Donald Trump’s victory in the US and his inauguration yesterday merely buoyed spirits and gave hope that their anti-establishment message will lead to an awakening.
That is to forget the swathes of protests against Trump across the world and his relatively narrow victory which has led many to call him the inheritor of a “disunited” States of America.
Marine Le Pen talked of a “domino effect” after Brexit and then Trump to “bring down Europe”, she said, prompting the return of the “nation state”.
“Yesterday, a new America. Today… a new Europe!”, Geert Wilders, leader of the anti-immigration Freedom Party (PVV) in the Netherlands
It would be fair to say the mainstream of politics is apprehensive of Trump’s as yet unclear foreign policy, especially on NATO and Russia relations, and by contrast his absolutely crystal clear nationalist policy of “America first”. Be under no illusion: Trump’s protectionist pledge is likely to put trade with the EU – and hopes of a significant UK deal – towards the back of the queue, behind US jobs for US firms. This would not be any gift to EU of course, so how will the populists respond exactly to a US president who is at best indifferent and at worst contemptuous of the world’s second biggest trading area, the European Union?
Trump said the UK was “smart” to leave the EU, warning other countries will leave the bloc. For the moment though, there is little sign of any referenda to come – not least for the fact these parties face obstacles to grabbing power (see number 3).
Donald Trump’s “America first” slogan was accompanied by a depressing outlook of the world’s largest economy, and like his inauguration speech, far-right leaders in Koblenz painted a similarly bleak picture. Wilders complained that “women can no longer show their blonde hair without fear” on Dutch streets. It’s as broad a brush stroke as Trump in his address yesterday, with an appeal to emotions rather than respect for the facts.
2. Angela Merkel isn’t going anywhere
There were shouts of “bye bye Merkel” and “Merkel must go” by the energised crowd in Koblenz.
“Europe needs Frauke, not Angela”, far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders said, in support of his far-right German counterpart.
But look at approval ratings, and although Merkel has been hit by her migrant policy, which Le Pen branded a “daily disaster”, and they tell a different picture. Merkel is on 56%, her AfD counterpart Frauke Petry, on 10%, and the chancellor is virtually certain to stay on as leader after national elections at the end of September.
This would likely come at the expense of a smaller majority and Petry’s AfD entering the German parliament for the first time. The AfD is polling third (see tweet below) behind Merkel’s governing coalition parties, but she remains an incredibly popular leader and will have been at the top of Germany for 16 years if she wins.
New poll puts Angela Merkel's CDU/CSU coalition up by 2 points at 37%, AfD in third place with 15%. Approval for Merkel at 56%, down 1%. pic.twitter.com/XoWDYRJQAA
Merkel’s standing on an international stage is far less certain amid speculation surrounding Trump’s moves with Russian president Vladimir Putin. Merkel will be pushing for an early meeting with the new US president, an anthesis of nearly everything she stands for as a politician. Her red lines on trade, NATO and the EU will be clear, so how well will Trump take to her, after already criticising her open migrant policy as a “very catastrophic mistake” in a recent interview.
In a couple of acts of great symbolism, as Donald Trump was inaugurated, Merkel was taking in some culture during a visit to the opening of a new gallery in Potsdam. But be under no illusion, she is no doubt already strategising her first move with Trump.
Obama meanwhile used his final phone call with foreign leaders as President to speak to Merkel, as a close ally and “reliable” partner. It was as if to say the German leader is now the standard-bearer of Western liberal democracy.
3. Are the populists “winners” yet?
Marine Le Pen walked on the stage to rapturous applause, embodying the greatest hope for the European populist movement in the French presidential elections in April and May.
But as it stands, though she’ll make it past the first round, she’ll be pummelled by her opponent in the second. Where will the tide of populism stand after that likely defeat?
Le Pen has been the most recognisable face and voice of discontentment with mainstream politics. In France, her rise has increased due to an unpopular Hollande government, and a series of Islamist terror attacks which has benefited her identity politics staple message. So the stakes are high and the pressure is on to capitalise finally on her more mainstream appeal.
The Austrian far-right MEP Harald Vilimsky called his populist allies “winners”, adding that protestors outside have merely helped, not hindered, the far-right ascent.
But with a Merkel win, a probable Le Pen defeat and a tough ride for Wilders to gain a governing majority in this year of significant elections, populism may be on the rise, but it has yet to gain enough traction yet in political systems that fundamentally inhibit their power.
Populism isn’t going away and will influence political words and deeds for years to come – but the prospect of gaining tangible powe already looks to be falling like dominoes.
4. The “family”of populism isn’t a one size fits all
While the far-right leaders of the FN, AfD, PVV and Northern League are all political bedfellows- they form part of the Europe of Nations and Freedom group in the European parliament – concerns in each country are not one and the same, which makes it difficult to believe their claim of cross-national cooperation and a single European movement.
Worries in France about security are not matched in Germany, after a recent poll showed even after the Berlin Christmas market attack that people there aren’t worried, unlike in France which put the issue of security second to unemployment, with 63% of French people concerned.
On the topic of migrants, it is even less important for Germans this year, down 26 points to 40% in a national poll in January. The migrant issue was a key issue for presidential elections in Austria last November, which was won not by the far-right but ultimately a Green candidate.
Finally, Germany’s economy is faring very well, unlike in France and in Italy, where unemployment is still high and growth low.
The links holding together European populism, while similar in many ways – the distrust of politics and the frustration with globalisation, expose many country-specific dynamics, which make claims of the year of the “patriotic spring” across Europe raising eyebrows.
5. Nazi comparisons aren’t far away
It was a day of old Europe meeting the supposed New Europe.
An old Europe that was highlighted by protestors cheering on a “colourful and not brown” politics, an allusion to the Brownshirts of the Nazi party.
And there were signs of the new Europe, that in 2017 centres around only one thing: the persecution of the media, with criticism of the “lügenpresse” or “lying press”, a term which pre-dates Nazism and brings back reminders of its use as an anti-democracy slogan against Jews and communists.
The theme of attacking the press, in a Trump-like manner, will only grow as elections approach.
The run-up to the summit was marked by complaints from German mainstream media, including state broadcaster ARD and newspaper Die Welt, after they were banned from attending because they had not “met journalistic standards in past reporting”. ARD is even considering taking legal action against an attempt to stifle their “freedom to report”.
By banning certain media, far-right parties are surpressing the of attention they crave, stifling the means by which most people get to hear of their arguments.
As one political analyst put it, the summit was “just good PR”. Timo Lochocki was skeptical of the co-operation the parties had promised: ““This is largely to increase media attention”, he said.
And there lies the contradiction.
As Donald Trump enters the White House, just how much the new US president seeks to provoke and sow disunity within the European Union will be closely watched.
The revolution has long begun but the big battles are still ahead for populist parties under pressure to reach the heights of leadership.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
As the world commemorated the 15th anniversary of 9/11, the singularly most important event of the 21st century so far, many hundreds of thousands of people packed streets and squares in Catalonia to celebrate their national day.
The excitement surrounding last year – that Catalonia was on the cusp of independence and tangible change – contrasted with a much more uncertain feeling this time round. With the backdrop of nine months of political paralysis in Madrid, talk of independence is still very much around, but far from being shouted about the tone is noticeably more muted with numbers attending events across the region down from 2015.
Few would have imagined a year ago the possibility of a third round of national elections should political parties fail to come to an agreement by the end of October, a prospect that three quarters of Spaniards are against, according to a new poll released today. The political blockade is by far the biggest obstacle for leaders in Catalonia – they simply don’t know who will be across the table in Madrid to negotiate a break-up from Spain.
Madrid is predictably standing firm, so much so incumbent Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo said on Saturday that an economic crisis or even a terrorist attack was preferable to the irreversible break-up of Spain.
Similar fractures in the ruling Catalan coalition are slowing down the secessionist process. The pro-independence Junts Pel Sí coalition, formed of centre-right to left wing parties, and the CUP, an anti-EU and anti-euro party, could lose its majority if elections were held according to polls. It reflects the thoughts of some analysts that the independence movement is losing steam, ultimately delaying the declaration of independence pencilled in for sometime next year.
Anti-independence parties have criticised the national day, or Diada, for being hijacked by supporters of independence, not a day for all Catalans to enjoy regardless of politics.
You only have to listen to Barcelona’s mayor Ada Colau to understand the complexity of the issue of independence. Somewhat ambiguously she voted “yes” to independence in a de-facto referendum in 2014, but Colau says she is not in favour of independence. She joined Catalans on the streets for the first time this year, together with members of Podemos, a party which is pro-referendum but at the same time, anti-independence.
The prospect of yet another round of elections, which Catalan president Carles Puigdemont hopes to call before this time next year, looks set to be a sort of end game. He said the vote will be “a transition period between post-autonomy and pre-independence”.
Puigdemont has said he will make use of a confidence vote in the Catalan parliament on 28th September to put a referendum on the table to Madrid.
Heralded as a once in a lifetime opportunity a year ago, independence in Catalonia looks to still be in its infancy. The momentum is still there, but with the roadblocks of coalition disagreement and no certainty as to who will be running Spain, there are many factors that can still derail the delicate independence process, compounded by a feeling of impatience that political leaders need to deliver results more quickly.