Europe’s leaders need to steel themselves for a tough 2017

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

2016 was the year when the ‘establishment’ was shaken time and again.

The old order, political rules of engagement and the very idea of liberal democracy were hit by a ferocious wave of populism that washed over Britain, Europe and the United States. Can Europe turn the tide in 2017?


Intergovernmentalism is here to stay. The EU must use it to win back support

The European project has been in free-fall throughout this year, so the big question is whether 2017 will see an EU recovery of some sort, or an unending vista of political and economic disintegration, writes Giles Merritt.

Brussels has been watching helplessly from the sidelines, underlining the realities of intergovernmentalism. The erosion of the EU’s ‘Community method’, and notably the Commission’s role, has contributed to a sense of impotence among Eurocrats, MEPs and the business and civil society players who do so much to help shape policy.

Many Europeans welcome the rise of intergovernmental authority as opposed to power wielded by the EU institutions. They see the Council as preferable to having the EU run by faceless and unelected bureaucrats who seem indifferent to the needs of ordinary people and are immune to democratic controls.

But that’s an inaccurate and prejudiced view – even if EU officialdom has straitjacketed itself in unnecessarily rigid rules and procedures and has neglected to communicate the value of its work to the general public.

A new solidarity on immigration and institutional reform would demonstrate that unity is European countries’ only viable option

It’s also a view that has done much damage in recent years, with national politics turning desirable intergovernmental oversight and decision-making into a tangle of hopeless deadlocks.

Tentative reforms that moved away from unanimity in ministerial councils to more qualified majority voting have helped, but it’s clear that the Europe’s longer-term interests are being trumped (so to speak) by member governments’ short-term domestic political concerns.

So where does this leave the EU, and its uncertain future?

To begin with, it’s vital and urgent that the EU’s institutions square up to their perception problem and launch all-out information campaigns.

The European Union has remarkable achievements under its belt, and despite the present atmosphere of crisis and despair is still forging ahead in crucial areas. But the EU does next to nothing to convince public opinion that, from research and development to humanitarian aid, and from support for struggling regions and industries to global development, it performs roles that no single country can fulfil on its own.

The other development needed to keep the EU on the rails is for national leaders to capitalise on intergovernmentalism as a means of protecting themselves against populism. A new solidarity on challenges ranging from immigration to EU institutional reform in the wake of Brexit would demonstrate that unity is European countries’ only viable option.

Do this, and things can improve. Fail, and 2017 could turn out to be worse that 2016’s annus horribilis.

In 2017, let’s work to ensure hate doesn’t trump love

2016 has been a pretty terrible year for European politics. And 2017 has all the makings of being equally gruesome, writes Shada Islam.

Let’s take a deep breath and think of some of the good things still happening across Europe. And importantly, let’s try to make sure hate doesn’t trump love and tolerance in the coming year.

It will be difficult. But there is reason to hope.

True, the political fate of Italy remains uncertain and far-right populists are riding high in the opinion polls in the Netherlands, France and Germany ahead of elections in all three countries.

But there are bright spots. First, Austria. After Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States, many assumed that Austria would also opt for a populist politician with a message against the European Union, Islam and globalisation.

The far-right candidate for the country’s presidency, Norbert Hofer, was buoyed by the success of Trump and of Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party. But this time things turned out differently, with Austrians rejecting Hofer in favour of the left-leaning Alexander Van der Bellen.

Recent developments should encourage Europe’s liberal democrats to stop being defeatist

Second, after making people wait for much too long, Angela Merkel launched her bid for re-election as German Chancellor despite criticism from within her own Christian Democratic Union party and the rising popularity of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party.

Echoing many, Joseph Daul, President of the European People’s Party, to which the CDU is affiliated, underlined: “Angela, you are needed in Europe”.

Third, Britain’s Liberal Democrats notched up a stunning by-election victory in Richmond Park in west London that the new MP Sarah Olney said was a rejection of the “UKIP vision” of Britain and its politics of “anger and division”.

And finally, a court in Amsterdam found Geert Wilders guilty of public insult and incitement to discrimination over a speech in which he called for “fewer Moroccans” in the country. No punishment was decreed, however.

Separately and even together, these developments do not signal a major setback for the populist lurch in European politics. But they do stand in contrast to the unrelenting waves of bad news – including Brexit – that has dominated Europe’s political agenda for the last twelve months.

Most importantly, they should encourage Europe’s liberal democrats to stop being defeatist and try harder – much harder – to win the upcoming elections.

Europe does not yet have a national politician like Canada’s Justin Trudeau who is unapologetic about celebrating diversity. But who knows what can happen next year?

In this unpredictable world, perhaps there is a charismatic European politician out there who is ready to discard hate and venom and come out strongly and convincingly for a diverse, tolerant and open Europe in 2017.

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