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Europe and the World • by Ralf Grabuschnig

Europe in crisis: Is the EU really that close to the brink?

At this year's Munich Security Conference, everyone's in crisis mode. Trump, Russia, Ukraine and elections in Europe. These are tough times indeed.

The world met in Munich for the annual Security Conference this weekend and it’s all crisis mode

This weekend, world leaders met for the annual Security Conference in Munich. However, at this year’s edition nothing quite seemed like it used to be.  It was not really about security. Neither was it about defence cooperation or NATO. No, this year was all crisis mode.

After all, the conference offered the first chance of a meeting between many European politicians and a high-ranking member of the Trump cabinet, Vice President Mike Pence. The American VP furthermore had a private meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov – Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko sitting next door. This image alone should give us a pretty good idea what the atmosphere must have been like in there.

However, the conference was also about the ongoing crisis of the European Union, as has become clear in statements leading up to the event.

“How close the European project stands to the edge of the precipice”

In the run-up to the Security Conference, Norbert Röttgen, chair of the German Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee used dramatic words to describe the current state of the EU. “We just need one more election to go wrong, and the EU will no longer be what it is today” he proclaimed, aiming at the prospect of Marine Le Pen winning this year’s presidential elections in France. “This shows you how close the European project stands to the edge of the precipice.”

He did not bring this up in connection with the Security Conference for no reason. The elections in France were almost certainly amongst the hot topics discussed behind the scenes in Munich. After all, these elections embody something way more important: their outcome is an indication for the state of the EU as a whole. But is it really that bad? Is Europe really this close to the brink? I wouldn’t necessarily say so.

Le Pen’s road to the Élysée

For years now, Le Pen’s Front National has been deemed to take over the presidency in France. Now, it only seems consequential that after the year of Brexit and Trump, this might now be the time. But while this conclusion may seem tempting, past experience from France tells us otherwise.  Only a little more than a year ago, France held regional elections, where the Front National did fantastically almost everywhere in the country in the first round. However, the party couldn’t win a single region in the run-off, as centre-right and centre-left voters joined forces and voted strategically.

There are strong indications they would do so again. A year and a half is not that long a time, even in times of Brexit and Trump. Additionally, with Emmanuel Macron there is a strong mainstream candidate who is reasonably electable in both conservative and liberal circles. Norbert Röttgen’s worst fear might therefore just not become reality.

The crisis could develop into the worst-case scenario still

But of course, it could just do. It is nonetheless far from impossible for Marine Le Pen to actually win, which would, in this I agree with Röttgen, send shockwaves across the European Union. But would it doom the whole project? I think that view is highly oversimplified. Even if Le Pen won the elections and wanted to take France out of the Eurozone, Schengen or even the EU altogether, she would at this point have to do so against the will of a significant share of the population.

France is not the United Kingdom. The country is deeply interwoven with the European institutions and other EU countries. I don’t think Le Pen can this easily “pull the trigger” and call a referendum on EU membership. More likely, her presidency would develop along the lines of Viktor Orbán in Hungary: deep hostility towards Brussels, loud disagreement and even open conflict. Not a nice outlook indeed but is it survivable? I think it is.

What we need is a positive case for Europe

It seems certain that 2017 will be no better year for the EU than 2016. Populism is still on the rise and in France, a populist party might just win this year’s presidential elections. It might. However, it won’t help anyone to doom the whole European project because of that prospect. It’s not all about politicians, parties and governments after all. If the EU manages to regain the support of a majority of people in France and elsewhere, Le Pen and others will have a hard time wrecking the project. Vice versa, if public support for the EU continues to fall, we won’t even need a Le Pen to wreck it.

Instead of bemoaning the current state of things, let’s instead try and create a positive case for this wonderful project again. Brexit offers a unique chance here and recent moves towards a real two-speed Europe are the right signal already. Let’s give the folks in Munich something else to talk about next year.

German politics is finally getting interesting again

German politics has for more than a decade been dominated by Angela Merkel. With Martin Schulz, a serious contender now surfaced.

Angela Merkel has been Germany’s Chancellor for almost twelve years. Is it time for a change?

As a relative newcomer to Germany, it’s sometimes hard for me to fully grasp the significance of Angela Merkel. Whatever you think of her, that woman is impressive. She’s been Chancellor of Germany for almost twelve years now and led her party, the CDU, for almost seventeen.

During that time, she has shaped the country in a way few other German politicians have. Today, Merkel therefore seems almost like a natural force in German politics. It feels like she’s always been there and she will be there forever. No wonder, Germans like to call her “Mutti”, or Mum. But this sense of inevitability has also made German politics a quite predictable and, frankly, boring game in recent years. This year’s federal election is going to change that.

Angela Merkel’s legacy in Germany

Merkel’s legacy is indeed hard to overlook, both in Germany and abroad. As head of Government, she has managed such momentous challenges as the 2008 economic crisis, the Euro crisis and, of course, the refugee crisis. In Germany, she has smothered political opponents like the SDP or even her long-time ally the FDP, making the Conservatives the dominant party in the country. With the AfD however, she has also witnessed the rise of a political force to the right of her CDU, a premier in the history of the republic. This is particularly striking as Merkel has increasingly moved the CDU to the centre – some would even say the left – when adopting more and more socially liberal positions, particularly her open-door policy for refugees.

All this made Angela Merkel what she is today: the most influential and powerful politician in Germany and Europe. But times are changing. During the last two years, Merkel has increasingly faced criticism at home. Her party’s Bavarian ally, the CSU, openly opposed the Chancellor on her refugee policy, the AfD overtook the CDU in regional elections in Merkel’s own home state and finally, the SPD has turned into a serious opponent again. Yes, this year’s federal elections are getting interesting.

Martin Schulz and the recalibration of the German party system

This recent Social Democratic resurrection of course, has everything to do with the party’s new candidate for the office of Chancellor: Martin Schulz. With his move from the European Parliament to running for office in Germany, he has led the SPD to unforeseen heights. In recent polls, the party climbed to 30%, just a couple of points short of Merkel’s CDU.  This is all the more remarkable, once you consider it started from an all-time low of 20% in January. For the first time in years, Angela Merkel therefore faces a real contender. And this begs the question: is Martin Schulz the better option for Germany?

Many liberals ask themselves this question these days – I sure know I do. But isn’t the real question a different one? Aren’t Merkel and Schulz in reality very similar, exemplified by the fact that people like me even ask themselves this question? Angela Merkel undeniably moved her CDU closer and closer to the centre, not shying away from traditional “left” positions like phasing out nuclear energy, opening the doors to refugees, fighting inequalities in school education, and – even though not proposed by her – introducing a minimum wage. What the SPD and Schulz are offering is in fact little different. They can of course shout out slogans like “Time for justice” but ultimately: what real alternative do they offer?

The real struggle starts after the election

What makes this election so interesting is therefore not so much the outcome itself. To paraphrase the rather absurd words of Jeremy Corbyn here: the real struggle starts after the election. Two strong candidates like Merkel and Schulz might well earn each of their parties over 30% of the vote but in the long run, two such massive centrist parties with little differentiation between them are probably not sustainable. Instead, this setting opens up other possibilities, especially on the right of the political spectrum.

The CDU will therefore sooner or later feel the urge to move further right, already drawn by the likes of Horst Seehofer and his CSU in Bavaria. While this probably won’t happen while Merkel is still in power, it’s an open secret she won’t run again after the next term. It remains to be seen whether the SPD can in the meantime establish itself as the real centrist power in the country. If it does – and hereby I answer the question I deemed unnecessary before – Schulz is indeed the better option for Germany.

Is Romania heading down the authoritarian path?

Romania's parliament in Bucharest. A remnant of the country's authoritarian past

Romania has quite an authoritarian past. Its government seems to have rediscovered it

I have spent a lot of time on this blog discussing authoritarian trends in Central and Eastern Europe, such as in Poland, HungarySlovakia, or just the Visegrád group as a whole. However, authoritarian tendencies in the region don’t stop there. In Romania, the newly elected Social Democratic government impressively demonstrated this earlier this week, when in a late-night move, it passed a law decriminalising “minor” cases of corruption. So what’s happening there?

Romania’s ongoing political crisis

In recent years, Romania’s Social Democrats have faced a series of issues connected with corruption. The last Social Democratic government was ousted just a year ago, following a fire in a Bucharest night club that – as it turned out – was also made possible by corrupt practices leading to the club even receiving an operating license. After a year of technocratic government, nothing really changed in the Social Democratic Party.

After then-PM and party leader Victor Ponta resigned, Liviu Dragnea took over the party. He is currently under investigation by the Romanian anti-corruption office as well and following his election victory in December, President Klaus Iohannis refused to swear him in as PM, stating that no politician facing corruption charges should be in government. Sorin Grindeanu, who was appointed Prime Minister instead,  is however alarmingly close to Dragnea and the new corruption law was clearly designed to free his party leader from allegations.

Decriminalising corruption in a late-night session… yeah…

As a result of the party’s recent conflicts with President Iohannis, watering down Romania’s corruption law has been on the government agenda from the very beginning.  It also sparked protests from the start. This explains why the government decided to pass an emergency law late on Tuesday evening. 

The amended anti-corruption law states that official misconduct that cost the state less than 200,000 Lei (around 47,000 €) would no longer be punishable by prison time. Handily, Dragnea’s case “only” cost the state 24,000 €.

This blatantly obvious move quickly sparked street protests which soon grew to the largest demonstrations Romania has seen since the end of communism. Every day since Wednesday, 250,000 people were taking the streets all over Romania, half of them in the capital alone. President Iohannis even took part in the protests himself and called upon the Constitutional Court to overturn the law.

Romania heading down the road to authoritarianism

Just today, the government surprisingly announced to  abandon their plan and take back the law. Yet, the issues gives us a pretty good idea about the future path this government will take. Already last year, the Social Democrats were behind scrapping Romania’s television fees, a move widely considered as weakening the independent media in the country. The party furthermore already proved its “creative” understanding of democracy back in 2012 when trying to oust then-President Traian Băsescu, organising an unsuccessful referendum on the issue, which caused a full-blown state crisis.

With its comfortable majority won in the recent elections, Dragnea’s party is unlikely to resign any time soon. Without the new corruption law, Dragnea will likely continue to pull the strings from behind the scenes like Jarosław Kaczyński does in Poland. With the attacks on independent media, the crackdown on the anti-corruption office and past experiences concerning his party’s democratic credentials, the Visegrád-path seems wide open to Dragnea. We might soon have to deal with yet another autocrat running an EU-country.

Will Cyprus reunification fail in 2017?

Will Cyprus reunification fail in 2017?

After years of talks, Cyprus is still a divided country. Could that change this year?

In my first post this year a couple of weeks ago, I tried to give some ridiculous predictions for 2017. One of them was that Turkey will blow the Cyprus reunification talks. So let’s have a little look at the state of these talks. A lot has already happened since then, including Greece causing the first conflict of the year. However, it is arguably still Turkey we need to worry about most.

Cyprus – the story so far

Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when Turkish troops moved into its largely Turkish speaking north after an attempted Greece-led coup. Since then, there have been repeated attempts towards reuniting the island, the last one in 2004. Since 2014, Nicos Anastasiades, President of the Republic of Cyprus and Mustafa Akıncı, President of Northern Cyprus, have again been in talks in what seems to be the most promising attempt in a long time.

In these last couple of years, the two Presidents have met repeatedly, aided by the United Nations, and moved a long way towards reaching a compromise. However, differences still persist, the main points of contention being Turkish military presence, border issues and other guarantor states.

What makes the conflict so complicated

The talks are severely complicated by the role of these guarantors. Greece, Turkey and the United Kingdom have to be included in shaping the future of the island and they have taken part in the latest talks in Geneva. It is exactly this overlap of interests that makes the Cyprus conflict so protracted. Besides the two parts of a future Cypriot federation, there are three foreign powers involved, plus UN and EU. And while I predicted Turkey would tear down a solution this year, it was the Greek foreign minister who caused the first scandal.

After a round of talks in Geneva in early January, Greek foreign minister Nicos Kotzias blew the meeting with some rather radical comments. In a break, he faced the media, stating that Greece demands a swift withdrawal of all Turkish troops from Cyprus. So far however, the Cypriot leaders were in agreement over a gradual withdrawal over a yet to be defined period of time.

As a result of Kotzias comments, both the Turkish Cypriots and Turks subsequently left the negotiating table. Recep Erdoğan later said “We have told Cyprus and Greece clearly that they should not expect a solution without Turkey as guarantor. We are going to be there forever“.

I might still win this bet

While it was the Greek foreign minister to cause the first conflict of the new year, reactions from the Turkish President quite clearly indicate where the real problem lies. Greece was after all quick to react and withdrew Kotzias from the talks. There doesn’t seem to be any Greek insistence on removing Turkish troops a.s.a.p. Erdoğan’s statements speak a very different language. “Being there forever” is simply not compatible with a Cypriot plan for phasing out foreign military presence. Neither seems Turkey likely to support an end to the outdated system of guarantor states. A real compromise could be difficult to reach under these circumstances.

If the first weeks of 2017 are any indication, I might therefore be on a good way towards winning my first bet. Unfortunately, I’d be the only winner in this.

Theresa May and her tale of a “truly global Britain”

Canary Wharf, a centre of global Britain. Will it still be after Brexit?

Britain is a global society now. Brexit was a vote to change that

After Theresa May’s big Brexit speech this week, my dear friend Nicole has published a blog article about what it all means for internationals living in London. In it, she touched upon a number of important points that I would like to add on today. After all, the speech was indeed remarkable, though not so much for the fact that Britain is now definitely heading for a hard Brexit but for the sheer ignorance demonstrated by the PM.

“Building a truly global Britain”

One topic in particular stands out for this blatant ignorance. That was when Mrs. May said “June the 23rd was not the moment Britain chose to step back from the world. It was the moment we chose to build a truly Global Britain.” Uhm, excuse me? The Brexit vote being about building a more global Britain? What country are you talking about?!

Every single serious analysis, interview and report I have seen or heard since June 23rd spoke a clear language. People in post-industrial and rural areas of England and Wales chose Brexit as a vote against the establishment – you know, folks like Theresa May. They also voted for Brexit because migrants have successfully been blamed as the root of their problems. As Nicole nicely put it: “They (want to) see is that people from other parts of Europe come to the UK to take away their jobs”. How on earth is that an invitation for building a “truly global Britain”?

However, Theresa May now even doubled down on her argument in another speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos. “We want to build a truly global Britain. A Britain that is an advocate for free trade, for free markets around the world and a Britain that is ensuring that we are taking those opportunities.” The only problem is: this is not what people have voted for! If she truly believes that, Theresa May is a sleepwalker. An elitist Tory, sleepwalking through a process she hasn’t initiated, desperately trying to reconcile it with her party’s and her own interests.

Heading for a dead-end

This strategy can never work though. There is no way the UK government can go on pretending like the Brexit vote was a vote for more globalisation when in fact it was the opposite. Any outcome resulting from this approach will necessarily be very different from what people voted for. Building a global economy while shutting down borders to internationals simply does not go together and closing borders is a thing Theresa May must do, if she wants to stay credible. This inherent contradiction will come to the fore, at the very latest when the government has to present its deal with the EU.

In the meantime, what Mrs. May is doing is the opposite of what she is saying. Britain is becoming less global by the minute with highly-educated, competent internationals (and taxpayers) like Nicole leaving the country. So wake up, Mrs. May. You are not building a global Britain, you are managing its demolition!

 

When Europe stopped acting European

The EU stopped acting European.

There is still a shared sense of what being European means. Politics however, stopped acting that way.

The EU is in a state of constant crisis. It has been since the global financial meltdown of 2008 and has only aggregated more crises since then. The financial one was accompanied by the Euro crisis, the debt crisis, and finally the refugee crisis. A lot of this lies beyond the EU’s control. Europe cannot eliminate its debt or bring peace to the Middle East overnight. However, whilst attempting to solve its manifold crises – something the EU has proven quite bad at – it has forgotten what it’s really good at: bringing societies and people together, maintaining peace and dialogue, fighting for democracy and human rights and expanding these beyond its borders.

The main problem, it seems, is that political leaders in the EU are scared to act European. Parties on the right, claiming to represent the silent majority of the “normal” people, have successfully taken over the agenda. Instead of focusing on what the EU is good at, leaders all over the continent increasingly copy their demands. They talk about a “smaller” but “deeper” European Union, while reintroducing border checks, bringing back the Dublin migration system and building fences all around.

Two developments in particular illustrate the grave mistakes EU leaders have committed in recent years – two fatal sins against the European idea.

Sin #1: Ending EU enlargement

Enlargement has been the EU’s number one success story. When in 2004, eight former members of the Eastern bloc were triumphantly received in the EU family,  this was rightly considered a milestone. Just 15 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the EU helped expand democracy, human rights and the rule of law eastwards, thereby re-uniting the continent. Since then, albeit slowing down, another three Eastern European states have joined the Union. This phase of enlargement showed the EU at its best: as a guarantor of peace, growing prosperity, democracy and freedom, expanding these notions beyond the old members’ borders. What happened since is nothing short of a betrayal of these achievements.

Today, there are still four serious candidates in the Western Balkans and even more prospective members waiting to join the EU but none is likely to become a member in the next ten years. In many cases, of course, reforms in the respective countries simply aren’t sufficient. But there is also an audible weariness to enlargement within the EU. Just why? There is no indication that anyone lost from accepting Eastern European countries into the club. On the contrary, it arguably made the whole continent safer, wealthier and more convenient to live in and travel through (also have a look at this article why enlargement still matters).

The simple answer is that leaders in the EU are scared. They are scared of a loud minority demanding an end to enlargement, like they demand an end to open borders, free movement and everything else that makes the EU what it is. It is right-wing populists spreading lies about enlargement, making it responsible for problems it has nothing to do with. Instead of facing these myths however, leaders in Brussels and the member states give in to populist demands and thereby surrender a huge success story. No wonder the EU is perceived as a losing team by more and more people around the continent.

Sin #2: Closing down borders

The dying Schengen area is a second field where the EU – or rather its member states – betrayed European ideals and stopped acting European altogether. A year and a half ago, Germany reintroduced border checks along its border to Austria, which have just been extended until the summer. Other countries followed suit so that today, Schengen is pretty much dead in large parts of Europe. It has been like that for so long that borders feel normal again – trust me, I’m crossing the Austro-German border quite regularly. A historic achievement of European unity was destroyed in a matter of months by nothing but political helplessness and lack of conviction!

The fact that the Dublin system is now to be reinstalled only exacerbates the situation. This system, by which the first EU-state a migrant sets foot in (i.e. almost exclusively Greece and Italy) is responsible for processing the asylum claim, is what made the refugee crisis spin out of control in the first place! It provides no solution for the EU’s challenges, while showing no sign of European solidarity whatsoever – a combination of factors guiding way too many EU policies these days.

Do what you’re good at – act European!

Over the last couple of years the EU impressively demonstrated what it isn’t good at. Dealing with Greek debt, the Euro and the refugee influx has taken up a large part of the EU’s energy but produced little to no outcome. Certainly no successes at least. In the process, the EU stopped doing what it is actually good at though: expanding its understanding of human rights, democracy and freedom, accepting new members into the club and breaking down borders – both physical and mental – between them.

Fears of the populist far-right, claiming to represent the silent majority, prevent the EU from focusing on its strengths and finally succeeding again. But that would be the only solution to the populist threat. A successful European Union will always find the support of its citizens! We don’t need the EU to close our borders. National governments do that just fine. So let’s focus on what the EU is good at and for god’s sake: act European!

3 ridiculous predictions for Europe and the world in 2017

Predictions, the fear of every serious journalist. Luckily, I'm not one.

“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future”, Winston Churchill is credited with saying. But hey: why not give it a shot nonetheless?

The end of a year and beginning of a new one is a time, when journalists and bloggers alike like to reflect on the year that was. And so did I in my most recents posts because obviously, it’s an easy and entertaining thing to do at a time when there is little other news out there. What most serious journalists avoid doing ever though, is give predictions for the new year.

It’s equally obvious why. More likely than not, your predictions will be proven wrong and world politics in particular is a field so constantly changing you can never really be sure about anything. No serious journalist wants someone else to point to his predictions at the end of the year, demonstrating how utterly wrong he was. Luckily, I’m not a serious journalist so let’s give it a shot nonetheless. Here are my top three ridiculous predictions for 2017!

1 | Trump will step down

Now that’s one you might have heard before. But hey: I’m not here to set out for the impossible. I need at least a tiny chance of a 3:0 win by the end of the year so my number one has to be Trump stepping down as President of the United States. But why?

There are many scenarios imaginable here but two in particular seem most likely. The first one is connected to Trump being an outsider, even in his own party, and an ignorant one for that. While most Republicans in Congress nicely fell in line behind him throughout the last months, this could change very quickly in 2017. Recent events around the attempted abolition of the House Ethics Committee and Trumps response on Twitter are a clear sign. Also speaker Paul Ryan is known to personally dislike Trump and would not stand by his side if serious conflicts were to erupt. The fact is that he like most other Republicans would simply prefer Mike Pence as President.

Secondly, Trump cannot go on breaking norms the way he did until now. Taking a call from Taiwan might be ignored in Beijing once. Another faux-pas like that could lead to serious troubles. Also Trump’s refusal to acknowledge Russian hacking in the elections and his perceived closeness to Putin won’t serve him well in the long run. His attacks at the US intelligence agencies and closeness to the “Alt Right” do the rest. There are therefore many possible roads to a Trump resignation during his first year in office.

2 | Erdoğan will withdraw his support from a Cyprus solution

One thing I already (sort of) predicted for 2016 was the re-unification of Cyprus. Evidently, this did not take place and it didn’t for diverse reasons. There are still open questions concerning the form of a future Cypriot state. Where should the border between the two entities of the state lie? How exactly should the political system be constructed and so on and so forth. However, all three international guarantors involved in the Cyprus question, Great Britain, Greece and Turkey, still back re-unification.

This might change in 2017. President Erdoğan has already shown first signs of a harshening approach towards the EU last year. He repeatedly threatened with ending the EU-Turkey refugee deal, turned to Russia over the war in Syria and started diplomatic disputes with several EU members. Evidently, he is trying to maintain and increase political pressure on the EU. Torpedoing a possible Cyprus-deal would do just that.

My prediction therefore is that leaders in Cyprus will agree on re-unification in 2017 but Turkey will block it last minute. They will probably name “humanitarian concerns” or “international law” as the reason.

3 | Nicola Sturgeon will call a new Scottish Referendum

My last prediction then is that Scotland will call or at least announce another independence referendum for 2018 or 2019. Recent months already showed that Theresa May and the UK government seem to be heading for a “hard Brexit”. They made migration their main concern and so far showed little will to compromise on the matter. The EU on the other hand, increasingly seems to accept this outlook and prepares for hard negotiations.

These are finally about to start in March – if May gets it through Westminster, that is. Michel Barnier, the EU-Commissions chief negotiator already said he wants negotiations to finish by autumn 2018, well before the end of the 2-year period foreseen by Article 50. He argues the EU and UK would need the extra six months to implement any deal made. However, it is more than obvious that no serious compromise can be reached in just 18 months of negotiation. Instead, the UK will likely be “granted” a transition deal.

Nicola Sturgeon and her Scottish National Party could easily take that as an invitation. By the end of 2017 it will be abundantly clear that the UK government will not achieve anything palpable by the end of the negotiation period. A hard Brexit will still be the most likely outlook, so Scotland calls for a new  independence referendum before a transition deal takes effect.


And there we go. My three predictions for 2017. At the end of the year, I am going to look back at them to see which, if any, have actually happened. Most likely, I will lose desperately but that’s the thrill of it.

Let’ see what the new year will bring. In any case, I’m sure it’s going to be an interesting one for Europe and the world. Subscribe to my newsletter to stay updated on new posts throughout the year!

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Brexit revisited. Six months after the referendum

Brexit revisited. Six months after the vote that changed Europe

Half a year has gone by since the Brexit referendum. What’s next?

We’ve made it. It’s 2017! Before jumping into the new year though, which – as I have said in my last year-in-review post – probably won’t be much better than the last, let us revisit one of the defining issues of 2016: Brexit. It’s been six months since the game-changing referendum on June 23rd. What do we know, what’s the state of Brexit and what can we expect for 2017?

The Brexit fronts started taking shape

Frustratingly, there still isn’t much to say about the specifics of Brexit but some of the battlefronts of the next two years already started taking shape. The last six months have been characterised by turmoil in the UK and quiet anticipation in Brussels. In the UK, Theresa May formed a new government and throughout the autumn seemed to be moving towards a “hard Brexit”, when she made immigration the government’s top priority. Later, this trend was somewhat diverted, when British courts ruled that Westminster will have a say in the leaving process. Everyone expects Article 50 to be officially triggered in March nonetheless but also that isn’t 100% certain at this point.

The EU on the other hand seems well prepared to start negotiations anytime. With Michel Barnier, the Commission presented its chief negotiator already in summer and the Parliament soon followed suit by appointing Guy Verhofstadt. Both of them are considered hardliners and their choice indicates two things: that the member states were this far willing to leave negotiations to the central institutions and that the EU is prepared to let the UK go for good.  From today’s view, the EU also seems unlikely to give in on key issues like free movement of people and will therefore take a hard stance vis-à-vis the UK.

There’s a lot at stake for the EU

However, there is also a lot at stake for the EU. 2017 will be a challenging year for the Union, even without Brexit. With France, the Netherlands, Germany and likely Italy, we are headed for at least three major elections this year, that could well result in an anti-European backlash in some core member states. Dealing with all that on top of the Brexit negotiations will be a serious test for European unity. So far, the EU states have shown a consistent face and left Brexit actions to the European institutions though this is unlikely to persist. After all, it is more than obvious that the 27 EU-states have highly diverging interests when it comes to Brexit and this will inevitably come to fore throughout the leaving process.

Let me just to give you an idea of the complexity. France can traditionally be put in the “Anglophobe” camp, pushing for a harsh and punitive British departure from the Union. But while this sentiment is indeed strong and historically grown, a National Front victory in this year’s presidential elections could change everything overnight, as Marine Le Pen has no interested whatsoever to punish the UK for something she wants France to do as well. Under changed auspices, the situation is comparable in Germany, where Angela Merkel can be put firmly in the “Anglophile” camp. While Merkel has this far accepted the hard stance of the EU institutions, this is bound to change after her (likely) re-election in September. But then again, in case she loses, the situation could change entirely with a possible leftist coalition.

I could go on and on, listing all the EU countries heading for elections this year and those who don’t. The point is: we ultimately have no guarantee for anything concerning Brexit, also on the EU side. What we do know is that the path taken this year will have immense ramifications for the future of the EU as a whole. A soft approach towards the UK could set a dangerous precedent that leaving the Union is an advantageous thing to do. A hard approach, on the other hand, could be seen as punitive and unfair in some member states. That’s the thin line we will be walking in 2017. By the end of the year, the future of the UK and EU will be a lot clearer though. And that’s the true importance of this year.

The year when terror became a normality in Europe

The Eiffel Tower was lit in the colours of France, Germany and Belgium this year and the attack in Berlin was only a sad conclusion of an even sadder year. Will 2017 be any better?

So now Berlin. Will the Eiffel Tower ever get bored of all the colours it has to put on?

In the light of recent events in Berlin, it seems both necessary and sadly fitting to dedicate my second end-of-the-year review to terror in Europe. This will be a short one though. A lot has been said about the topic, also on this blog, and there truly isn’t much to add at this point. Monday’s events in Berlin only confirm what we have all known already: Terrorist attacks have became a normality 2016 and they won’t stop anytime soon. We should better prepare for more to come in the new year.

After Berlin: did we get used to it yet?

After the Brussels attacks in March, I wrote an article saying that we’ll have to get used to these kind of terrorist attacks. Sadly and predictably, this statement held true throughout 2016. This year, Europe has repeatedly been hit by acts of terror, making the above pictures of the Eiffel Tower lit in different national colours an almost mundane view. But did we get used to it already? Signs from Berlin indicate yes.

Hideous terrorist attacks like this most recent one have long become a sad reality and 2016 will go down in history as they year when they did. Gone are the days when terrorist strikes like the 2004 Madrid train bombings or the 2005 attacks in London sent the European public into a state of shock. Now, we almost routinely switch into our “post-terror mode”. We know the condolences by heart, we add the respective national colours to our Facebook profile photos, we create hashtags, we mourn, discuss and theorise. What we do less and less is to give in to the  fear. And that’s the good news of 2016.

Let 2017 come and hope it will be better

While each and every terrorist attack in Europe is a tragedy on its own, we have long started to cope. 2017 will come, it will more likely than not deliver more terror, and solutions are still hard to come by.  We can only hope the situation in the world and the Middle East in particular will improve and that a solution for Syria can finally be found. What we can actively do is to help make sure that the blame is not put on the weakest people in Europe – migrants and refugees – and to do our part in preventing the further rise of right-wing populists, trying to profit from pain and tragedy. If we achieve that, 2017 will be a good year. Nevermind the terrorists.

And with these semi-optimistic words, let me wish you a Happy Christmas. Enjoy your holidays and see you in the new year with the last part of my little “year-in-review” series, looking at another topic discussed a lot in 2016: Brexit. Stay updated on my new posts and subscribe or follow me on Twitter!

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3 reasons why the EU Turkey deal is still awful

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul - a symbol of Turkey's pas achievements. The Turkey deal however, is a disaster.

The EU Turkey deal has been in force for the better part of a year. It’s still awful.

Another year is drawing to a close and gives us the opportunity to look back and reflect on the events that shaped it. This is exactly what I want to do in the last remaining blog posts of this year. To start things off, let’s have another look at a topic I have been talking about a lot in the earlier months of the year: the EU-Turkey deal (here and here, for instance). Now this deal has been in force for the better part of a year and its results are, unsurprisingly, not great. Three reasons why the EU Turkey deal is still awful:

1 | The Turkey deal didn’t stop the flow of migrants

The first thing to observe is that the Turkey deal simply did not do what it was supposed to. Or at least, there is no way of proving it. The numbers of refugees crossing the Aegean Sea did indeed drop after March 2016 but this does not necessarily have anything to do with the Turkey deal. After all, this is also exactly the time when Austria and other countries closed the Balkan route and of course less and less migrants bothered to cross the Aegean after the information got through that their final destination would be a dirty camp near Idomeni.

But not only did the deal with Turkey not curb the number of migrants, the relocation mechanism it envisaged never even started to work.  Only some 750 (!) people were sent back from Greece to Turkey under the deal and even fewer Syrians were accepted into the EU from Turkey as a result. The only so-called success of the deal is therefore the mutual claim that it somehow magically discourages people from leaving Turkey. And as I have said, there is no way of verifying that. Instead, the deal made Europe dependent on an autocrat and egomaniac.

2 | Turkey is no trustworthy partner anyway

Even before the attempted coup d’état in July, Turkey has become a less and less reliable partner for the EU. President Erdoğan has for years moved towards a more autocratic style of government, this year only marking a new peak in an ongoing development. But let me nonetheless remind you why exactly Erdoğan’s Turkey can be no partner for Europe.

Since July, the Turkish regime has detained at least 70,000 people and arrested more than 30,000. Close to 100,000 members of the military and judiciary, teachers, academics and journalists lost their jobs and/or had to leave the country. Thousands of institutions allegedly linked to Fethullah Gülen – Erdoğan’s personal nemesis – were closed down, including schools, universities and religious centres. And that is without even mentioning the recent crackdowns on Kurds and the pro-minority HDP party. No, a regime like that can by no means be a partner for the EU.

3 | We surrendered ourselves to Erdoğan

The problem is that we did not only make this rogue state our partner though, we made ourselves completely dependent on it! Just this week, the EU council of foreign ministers rightly discussed the suspension of EU accession talks with Turkey. This move should not be any question really but the EU is – as a result of the Turkey deal – unable to do anything. Whenever the matter of Turkey is discussed, be it EU talks, protests against illiberal actions there, the Armenian genocide or even mock poems on German TV, all that Erdoğan has to do is wave the refugee card. “I will release millions of refugees into Europe!” – yeah, sure.

We must realise that ultimately, Erdoğan is bluffing. There is no proof that the refugee deal ever worked at all so we have no reason to believe he can simply “open the floodgates”. Refugees likely wouldn’t leave Turkey once the deal is suspended – they know they would be stranded at the Macedonian border. The EU should instead develop a real approach to migration and then end this miserable deal. Only then can we  start to treat Erdoğan’s regime they way it deserves. Like the rogue state it is.

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