The European Union, and the Continent at large, have weathered more than a few storms during 2016. The real challenge, however, is about to begin. Let’s run through the greatest challenges and obstacles that lie astride the EU during 2017.
Looming 2017 elections
The Netherlands will vote in March. French elections are scheduled for April (first turn) and May (second turn). German elections are scheduled for September or October. All these electoral checkpoints could determine the future of the European Union. The Netherlands are a wealthy member, and the Franco-German alliance lies at the foundation of the EU. It may well be that far right forces won’t win any of these elections outright – although
France remains in danger – but they are sure to gain more influence and parliamentary representation than before. This alone will present a challenge to further integration and cooperation. A potential far right victory in France could easily spell the end of the EU as we know it, and leave Germany to salvage whatever possible. One must also bear in mind that in the months leading to the elections, significant and structural reforms are unlikely.
Finally, early elections in Italy are a distinct possibility, and the outcome of the clash between the centrist Democratic Party and the corporate-run Five Star Movement will likely depend on the selection of the electoral law.
The possible dissolution of NATO
No one can really know what will happen to the alliance once Trump takes office, but it’s telling that the one topic of European policies that is receiving bipartisan effort at reform is security. The EU is preparing for a world where American defense is, at best, no longer a known variable. In lieu of the refugee crisis, the terrorist threat and Russian efforts at destabilizing the Union, an increase in European defense capabilities is paramount. One must be under no illusion that the current state of preparedness of European armed forces is fairly low, and even with pooling of resources it will likely remain so for a few years.
But the implications of a Trumpist American foreign policy in 2017 are far larger: the transition towards a multipolar international order could gather speed and signal the end of value-based alliances nested along ideological lines. It would also increase the prospect of regional or supraregional conflicts (such as between Japan and China). This new international scenario would usher in both opportunities and threats, but its effects on culture, politics and international relations is hard to forecast with precision.
It’s likely that 2017 will see Britain invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. From the moment the article is triggered, Britain will have two years to negotiate an exit deal with the Union. This will require a lot of work and red tape, and a stepstone deal that prolongs negotiations might even be on the cards, to buy more time. However, good will on both sides is understandably lacking, and the risk is that Britain will eventually just crash out of the Union, without sufficient successor deals.
While the EU would suffer far less than Britain in the process, the resulting instability would harm both.
Visegrad, the Eurocore, the Southern Periphery – Europe is splintering. Add to that the complex negotiations between Spain and Catalonia, the continuation of Greece’s woes and Turkey’s drift towards authoritarianism, and you have a Europe altogether more fragmented than in recent years. The frozen conflict in the Donbass also continues with no end in sight. This structural weakening of European institutions both within and without the Union could paralyze efforts at reform at home and abroad.
This little rundown might seem halfway between apocalyptic and humorous – just like most New Year’s Eve parties! But let’s head into 2017 with the knowledge that it will be a crucial year for Europe, regardless of the outcome, and we all have a part to play to make it better.