2014: One Year in Europe

2014 has been another eventful and exciting year for Europe and the PDU. Time to take a look back at some of the most important events and developments of the past year.

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Ukraine: A new Cold War front?

2014 marked, amongst other anniversaries, 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the literal and symbolic end to the east-west division of Europe. Yet this has also been a year in which the Cold War has seemed closer than at any time since 1991.

The decision by Ukraine’s President Yanukovych on 21st November last year to forgo further EU trade negotiations in favour of a pivot towards Russia sparked a chain of escalating protests. Despite an authoritarian crackdown and attempts by Russia to support the government, by the end of February Yanukovych had fled the increasingly violent situation in Kiev. A series of swift moves by protestors and parliamentarians appeared to stabilise the country for its journey towards a democratic and pro-EU future.

What happened next caused a shiver of recognition for many, especially in those formerly Soviet EU member-states. On 16th March, two weeks after the Kremlin had authorised President Putin to use force to protect Russians in Ukraine, Crimea – a peninsula in the south-east of the country – voted with a 97% majority to secede and annex itself to the Russian Federation. The conditions of the ballot remain highly suspicious, but that has not prevented Putin from magnanimously accepting the territory into Russia. Similar referendums have occurred in the eastern areas of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Whilst the west of Ukraine is in the process of rebuilding itself – linked to the long-desired EU Association Agreement in June and the rise in support for pro-Western parties in the October parliamentary elections – the east continues to see clashes between Ukrainian nationalists and pro-Russian separatists. The conflict drew even further international condemnation after 17th July, when a Malaysia Airlines flight from Amsterdam was brought down over separatist territory, killing 298 civilians. Far from the Ukrainian crisis being resolved this year, we will have to wait until 2015 to see how the situation develops.

The European Elections

In 2014, the European Union’s most important parliamentary elections yet took place. After years of economic and political crisis, Europeans got their chance to influence EU politics more directly than any time before. Since the Treaty of Lisbon has come into force, the European Council must take the results of the European Parliament elections into account when proposing a candidate for the Presidency of the European Commission. Europe’s main parties decided to take the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty seriously and adopted a Spitzenkandidaten process, by which the leader of the largest party in Parliament was to become Commission President. Though this process, which PDU supported wholeheartedly given the Commission’s unprecedented power with insufficient democratic legitimacy, was not undisputed, in the end the Council bowed to democratic pressure.

So much for the positive signs of this year’s EU Parliament elections. The results were, not very surprisingly, overshadowed by the strong support for Eurosceptic parties from across the Union. Liberal parties, traditionally very friendly to European integration, suffered strongly. Voter turnout, at 43,1%, was alarmingly low, especially considering that one hope of the pro-European mainstream was that the elections would bolster democratic legitimacy and the integration process in general. However, turnout had not fallen as compared to 2009, putting an end to a decade-long trend of falling interest of voters in the European Parliament elections. The EPP, whose leader, former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, is now Commission President, won the election, despite losses compared to 2009. The Socialists and Democrats (S&D) came in second, with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE), the Greens and Left (GUE/NGL) parties following suit. While the European Parliament is predominantly made up of pro-European parties, a considerable amount of decidedly Eurosceptic parties also had a strong showing, especially UKIP and France’s Front National.

On 1 November, Juncker and his team of Commissioners, some of whom faced a difficult time in hearings in front of Parliament, took office. The tasks are daunting: economic woes are far from over. Austerity has failed and powerful EU member-states are increasingly calling for a more balanced approach. The Commission recently unveiled a massive investment programme to do just that. National elections in many of the EU’s most worst-hit states, such as Greece and Spain, may put an abrupt end to the slow path out of crisis. And in the UK, the EU faces another difficult construction site, with David Cameron calling for a bottom-up reconfiguration of the Union ahead of the British general election next year. Nationalist, Eurosceptic, and often openly xenophobic parties across the Union are still flourishing and they have reportedly gained support from another problem the Commission and Parliament need to deal with: Putin’s Russia. And not least, Juncker himself is facing serious accusations concerning his conduct in the affair known as Luxembourg Leaks, which involves tax deals and legislation in Luxembourg for multinational corporations.

Rise of Extremism across Europe

The rise of right wing extremist parties has been a popular topic of discussion in Europe in the past few years. However, 2014 saw a milestone in this topic: until this year, the effects of right wing extremist parties were only significant in terms of opinion polls and national level politics in some countries. However, as clearly demonstrated by the European Parliament elections in May 2014, the right wing extremist parties not only swept the European Parliament seats, but also caused a political earthquake in Europe, as stated by the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls.

The main highlights of this far right extremist shock in Europe included the victory of the National Front (FN) Party in France and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in the UK, and the anti-immigration and anti-EU Danish People’s Party in Denmark with significantly higher percentages than any other party in these three member states. In Greece, the popular extremist right wing party the Golden Dawn remained significantly of importance despite coming third in the European elections in the country. Austria’s far right Freedom Party (FPÖ) made a noteworthy political echo with their increasing number of seats in the European Parliament and an anti-immigration campaign that called for cutting Vienna’s EU contributions by 50% and demanded a referendum on the EU’s bailout fund. On the other hand, the right wing extremists in the Netherlands experienced a slight fall in popularity.

Despite the fact that the conservative EPP managed to remain as the largest group in European Parliament politics, the rise far right extremist parties certainly shocked European politics in 2014, greater than ever before.

German Leadership?

Presenting the German version of his book Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy 1453 to the Present, the PDU’s president Brendan Simms discussed his vision for a federal European state with Germany’s minister of Finance, Dr Wolfgang Schäuble.

Shortly after, at a conference organized by Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Schäuble voiced the opinion that, “now is not the time for grand academic debates.” His remarks give guidance as to what we can expect out of Germany in the coming year – more of the same. While Europe is now fast approaching a triple dip recession, Berlin is still far from showing any leadership regarding the reform of the common market, shared security, and ultimately our common European polity.

Separatist/Independence Movements

Separatist movements have long been part of the European political landscape. In a political system in which there exists a great number of different cultures, groups, and identities all ‘united in diversity’, it has become evident that sometimes the boundaries which have existed in Europe throughout the centuries may not stand the test of time. This was highlighted in 2014 with the dramatic culmination (or lack thereof) of the independence movement in Scotland, which saw record levels of political engagement, rousing rhetoric on both sides of the campaign, and a nail-bitingly close referendum result. The campaign of Alex Salmond and the Scottish National Party was closely watched in the EU, especially by those involved in similar movements, such as in Catalonia. While attempts for a legal referendum may have been blocked by the Spanish government on constitutional grounds, many estimate that, had a referendum taken place in Catalonia, more would have voted for independence than against it.

It is clear that Salmond envisioned an independent Scotland at the centre of the European Union, something which has been echoed in Catalonia. While there may have existed some legal difficulties or delays, the European Union has been shown to represent a safety net for separatist movements. In gaining independence from the UK, Spain, or another country, the newly independent state can hope to rely on the EU as a ready-made foundation upon which to build their new political system and economy.

Despite this, however, it is the opinion of the PDU that further separatism in the EU is not a positive development. While it is clear that there should exist the right to self-determination, the PDU’s view is that the Eurozone should form a single, united, and federal state. Only then will it have the power to reach its potential and hold its place on the world stage in the future.

Outlook 2015

The Presidency of the European Council will be taken over from Italy by Latvia in the first half of 2015 and Luxembourg in the second half of 2015. Latvia will continue to work along the framework as set out in the 18 month programme of the Council (1 July 2014 – 31 December 2015). Furthermore, Lithuania will join the Eurozone as its 19th member on the 1st January 2015.

The new European Commission took office on the 1st November 2014. In 2015, the Commission has to deliver what has been promised in the 2015 Work Programme, which is a translation of the 10 priorities set out in the Political Guidelines as presented by Juncker after the elections. In the Work Programme, the Commission introduces 23 new initiatives, the amendment or withdrawal of 80 legal proposals and the removal of regulatory burdens and cutting red tape. Among the new initiatives are: a €315 billion investment plan; a move towards the digital single market; a strategic framework for energy union; and a European agenda on migration. The Work Programme has the promising title “A New Start”, as the new Commission has to prove in 2015 that they can do things differently.

2015 is election year in nine member-states: Estonia, Sweden, Finland, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Portugal, Poland, Spain, and Greece. These elections could change the political landscape in the European Union – certainly the elections in the larger member-states such as the United Kingdom, Poland, Spain and Greece. A change in the political landscape, whether or not influenced by Euroscepticism, could change the course of and the decision-making process in the European Council and the Council of the European Union.

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