2015 in Europe: A year of challenges

The past 12 months have seen the waves of multiple crises break on the European shore. The Project for Democratic Union looks back at 2015, a watershed year in European history. By James Bartholomeusz

Je_suis_Charlie-300x277War in the Levant, terror in Paris

The Syrian Civil War has lasted longer than the First World War, and its tremors are now being felt in Europe. 2015 was bracketed by two terrorist attacks in Paris – against the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine in January, and against civilians across the city in November – perpetrated by the ascendant extremist group ISIL.

These tragic events highlighted the incapacity of national security regimes in an integrated Europe: having crossed over from the Levant, the terrorists were at liberty to travel to France within the borderless Schengen Area. Greater cooperation between national security services is now back on the agenda. Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the attacks, Britain has resolved to join France, the US and Russia in Syrian airstrikes. What is now being described as the Middle East’s version of the Thirty Years War will likely be the dominant issue of 2016.

 

Refugees and the end of the Schengen
20689706349_94ebb52bde_oIt is now 70 years since the end of the Second World War, the conflict that led to the worst refugee crisis in European history. Over the summer, it felt as though history was repeating itself as the present refugee influx became a major topic of public concern. Those fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa are risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean – or take the perilous land-route via Turkey – to reach the comparative safety of the EU.

With anti-immigration sentiment already running high in many EU countries, the refugee issue lit a powder-keg in European international relations. Governments of all political shades – but especially those of the far-Right in eastern Europe, such as Hungary’s Fidesz – proceeded to unilaterally close borders in violation of the Schengen Agreement. One of the four freedoms of the European project has been partially suspended and, with refugee flows only set to increase as the war in Syria intensifies, there is no solution in sight.

LePen (Michel Springler_AP)

The populist-Right surge

Structural problems with the economy and democracy, terrorist attacks, large flows of refugees – these conditions are ideal for the populist Right to flourish. In Poland, both presidential and parliamentary elections resulted in triumph for the conservative-nationalist Law and Justice Party. For the first time since the foundation of the Federal Republic nationalist groups have entered the political arena of Germany, in the form of Alternative for Germany and PEGIDA. And, although the Front National failed to win any of France’s regions in last week’s elections, the party still accrued over one-quarter of the vote in the second round, putting Marine Le Pen in a strong position for the 2017 presidential race. Meanwhile, under the leadership of Fidesz and jolted by the paramilitary group Jobbik, Hungary continues to drift further outside the European mainstream.

Faced with a multitude of challenges against which it appears powerless, the political establishment of Europe has been unable to form a coherent response to the populist Right. Unless there is a new deal for Europe that provides solutions to the concerns of ordinary citizens, the revolt will only grow.

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Austerity, democracy and the third Greek bailout

After several years of entrapment in a debt cycle, Greece’s January parliamentary elections brought Alex Tsipras and his SYRIZA party to power vowing to end austerity in the country. The following months saw a series of flashpoints as Tsipras and his finance minister Yanis Varoufakis faced off against the alliance of the Eurogroup, the European Council and the IMF. In July, the ECB attempted to influence negotiations by imposing capital controls on the country, but in a snap referendum the Greeks resoundingly rejected more austerity. Despite this, the following month Tspiras capitulated to intense international pressure, accepting a third bailout for the country in exchange for continuing the austerity programme.

The Greeks’ predicament was swiftly eclipsed by other issues, but the struggle between the pro-austerity establishment and anti-austerity grassroots groups remains. In September, Tsipras found himself in the surreal position of winning a second election by promising to implement the bailout agreement he had opposed for most of his first term in office. In Portugal, meanwhile, the October election descended into scandal when conservative President Silva invoked the country’s constitution to prevent the anti-austerity Left assuming power after winning a majority.

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The spectre of Brexit

In May, the Conservative Party won a shock victory in Britain’s parliamentary election, committing the country to an in-out referendum on its EU membership before the end of 2017. Prime minister David Cameron, who wants to see a loosening of the EU’s influence over Britain whilst remaining part of the union, published his demands for renegotiation in November. Meanwhile, nascent pro- and anti-European campaigns have been set up, although there is currently no date set for the vote and Cameron has yet to extract any concessions from his counterpart leaders. At a time of deep uncertainty in Europe, British departure could seriously destabilise the EU as a whole.

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Action on climate change?

Only days after its second terrorist attack, Paris played host to the UN COP21 climate change negotiations. The 195 participant states met to decide upon strategies to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, and, in a late ray of sunshine in a troubled year, the resulting agreement was lauded as a historic victory. The ceiling for global warming was lowered to 1.5 degrees, a $100 billion international fund will be launched to help developing countries deal with the transition, and leaders committed to five-yearly global summits to review progress. The agreement is, in formal terms, solid – but the true test will be the willingness of states and supranational entities, like the EU, to follow words with actions.

Image: ‘Je suis Charlie’ courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Image: “anti-immigrant gigantic posters in Budapest” via Wikimedia Commons, uploaded to Flickr by Szfery. Published under Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Image: ‘Le Pen’ courtesy of Michel Springler via Associated Press, released under Creative Commons.

Image: “Alexis Tsipras” by AFP. Published via Twitter under Creative Commons License 2.0.

Image ‘Parliament’ courtesy of Superedd via Pixabay, released under Creative Commons

Image ‘Cop21’ courtesy of Pressenza, released under Creative Commons.

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