The State of Europe

As the EU approaches its 50th anniversary next year, many will be wondering whether the union will make it through the next fifty. In truth, 2016 has not been an easy year for the union; marked by the continuation of economic woes, the issues surrounding migration and refugees, and the shock of the Brexit vote.

There is, however, a sense of opportunity from the more optimistic advocates of the European project as the EU sets out its agenda without its so called ‘reluctant partner’. Indeed, European leaders met recently in September for an informal summit in Bratislava in the UK’s absence. The rallying call came from none other than the European Council President Donald Tusk that leaders “must not let this crisis go to waste”. The shock of the Brexit vote could push EU leaders to solve questions surrounding migration, economic instability, and defence and security to prevent a further populist swell.

On the latter issue, the French are keen to pursue further cooperation on a common defence policy at the EU level, as Brexit presents an opportunity to push ahead without British resistance. In reality, it remains to be seen if Brexit presents an opportunity to bring harmony to the union on such issues. Whilst public support for the union has surged across the continent since the UK referendum, politicians continue to be divided on the exact path forward. The agreed ‘roadmap’ at Bratislava amounts to little more than a vague commitment for each country to do their best for the union as the contentious issues persist; especially surrounding the ongoing migrant crisis.

Despite a mandatory migrant quota plan passed by the EU council of ministers in September, doubts about its prospects for success have emerged with Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania’s opposition to the plan. The scheme to relocate 120,000 migrants from Greece and Italy despite the approval of a majority is set to face legal challenges from Hungary and Slovakia – two of the so called “Visegrad Group” – joined by Poland and Czech Republic who expressed their dissatisfaction with the EU’s handling of migration at Bratislava. Though the plan grants €6000 of EU Aid for each refugee accepted by a state, it seems that populist resistance to migrants trump economic incentives for leaders in Hungary and Slovakia. In Hungary, a referendum on the plan saw 98% of voters reject the EU’s position in favour of the government. The 40% turnout rendered the result invalid with pro-migrant voters tactically staying at home, nonetheless the result is symptomatic of the populist and anti-immigrant sentiment engulfing the continent and beyond.

Perhaps the most recent realisation of this is the shock election of Donald Trump on the back of promises to build a wall and ban Muslims. If few people had expected the Brexit result, almost no one expected Trump to win in an election that is set to have profound implications for the continent. Such is the profound nature of the result that foreign ministers met on Sunday to discuss the effect of a Trump presidency on US commitment to NATO, free trade and the Paris Climate Change Agreement. The meeting was notably snubbed by Boris Johnson in a move indicating that the UK may already be moving away from Europe and towards the US. Certainly, May’s cabinet may be eyeing up a trade deal to vindicate the hard-Brexit that the UK may be heading for if it pursues restrictions on free movement. Trump’s proclamation that the UK would not be “at the back of the queue”, in contradiction to the line touted by Obama, will not have gone unnoticed.

If the UK and USA are going it alone then, perhaps Trump presents not just a challenge but an opportunity for the EU to relinquish its reliance on the USA. Indeed, the French Foreign Minister signalled last week that Trump’s election could be the tipping point for a coordinated European defence force. The chairman of the Conservative bloc in the European parliament, Manfred Weber, even went as far to say that Trump may “force Europe to grow up” on a whole host of issues from climate change to trade policy.

On the contrary, it is possible for EU leaders to view the political environment that saw Trump elected as a threat to their own survival. Many will be concerned by the glee expressed by France’s National Front at Trump’s election. Certainly, Brexit and Trump cast new uncertainty on French and German elections next year with the rise of far-right parties posing a threat to stability.

In light of this, the spotlight will likely turn to the awaited December 4th re-run of the Austrian Presidential election, as the far-right Freedom Party Norbert Hofer narrowly leads Independent left-leaning Alexander Van Der Bellen in the polls. On the same day, and perhaps of greater significance, is the Italian referendum on constitutional reform proposed by Prime Minister Renzi to streamline the policy process. As with Brexit, there is a danger that the referendum will simply be a test of the electorate’s trust in politicians rather than the issue itself. Renzi’s earlier commitment to resign should he lose has done little to help despite the later backtracking. Should Renzi’s proposal be rejected as polls suggest, there are concerns of yet another election in Italy and yet more market instability for the EU should the populist Five Star Movement prosper from Renzi’s downfall. The reality may not be so chaotic, but an uneasiness about the result endures.

Whilst the EU desperately tries to find common ground and unity, perhaps the true current state of Europe is one of division and uncertainty.

Aaron Mile is the Editor of the European Affairs Policy Centre at the King’s Think Tank.

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