Europe in 2016

_ Oleg Barabanov, Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club. Moscow, 9 January 2017.

The year 2016 turned out to be rich in political events in Europe and around it. Many of them are capable of having a long-term influence on the situation’s development and to a significant degree change the stereotypical image of the “old continent” that was formed earlier. That includes the undermining of the European Union’ integrity, the serious challenge to the US-Europe relations’ status quo that has formed in over entire decades, and the sharp change of the migration balance on the continent with all the attendant socio-political consequences. It is therefore rather natural that the European political issues were at the focal point of attention for Valdai Club experts this year.

On the eve of 2016, terrorist attacks in Paris pointedly raised the issue of a principally much higher level of insecurity in Europe and of the inability of leading EU countries’ political leaders to provide this security. A series of hooligan violence on New Year in Cologne and other German cities also raised a broad public reaction and discontent. The summer terrorist attack in Nice and the very recent terrorist attack in Berlin showed that the situation is not changing and in over a year since the first attacks, nothing has been done.

After these events, on the one hand, the commonplace speculations spread that the police and other security forces were not at their best. On the other hand, gradually, another point of view was voiced, that the root of the problem is not in the police, but in the top political leadership of Germany, France and other EU countries. Because it is the politicians that do not let their security services and police to work professionally within the migrant and different creed environment and effectively counteract the threats that come from it.

More than that, the desire to besmirch the police and whitewash the politicians during the terrorist attacks and excesses of late 2015 and early 2016 led to a definite rise of discontent among the police themselves in EU countries. This fundamentally new issue for the “postmodern” Europe, a conflict between the military and police became the focal point of a Valdai Paper by Thomas Flichy de La Neuville of the Saint Cyr French military academy.

This paper points out that, according to many in the military, the modern political elite in France (and many other EU countries) no longer responds to challenges and is leading the country into a dead end. The counterweight to it is a growing and strengthening new “live elite”, a considerable part of which is the officer corps, which, unlike the politicians, is actually dedicated to serving its country. For now, of course, it cannot be said that “a phantom of a military coup is haunting Europe,” but the French President Francois Hollande’s complete loss of authority and popularity and the sharp move to the right in French public opinion as a result of this in many ways measure up to the logic of Flichy de La Neville’s conclusions.

The grandest event of mid-2016 was undoubtedly the success of the Brexit referendum. Among other things, the Brexit showed how detached from reality the British political elite’s impressions were of its people and real socio-political attitudes. Thought up by Prime Minister David Cameron as only an effective yet meaningless element of his pre-election strategy (and at the same time a way to blackmail Brussels), the referendum turned out to be not at all what its authors intended. Cameron lost his career, the issue of the EU’s collapse went from the level of discussions (that everyone brushed aside) to a plane of reality. The inner unity of England with the other parts of the United Kingdom that were conquered by it at some point was also put into question.

Alan Freeman and Radhika Desai’s Valdai Report is dedicated to the results of Brexit on the economic, political and even ideological level. The authors conclude that the referendum demonstrated a collapse of the “mainstream” conservatism that Cameron followed. This resulted in many unresolved Britain’s social problems, in many ordinary citizens’ lack of confidence in the future and the growing gap between society and authorities. Now Britain has to find a new ideological model for its development. According to the authors of the Report, one of the options may be the growth in popularity of left-wing approaches, as represented by Jeremy Corbyn, among others. Or, politicians who go along the path of the new non-mainstream “militant” and politically incorrect conservatism may emerge (as with Donald Trump in the US). The current Theresa May government’s attempt to stay within the bounds of the old mainstream will not yield any positive results.

The success of the Brexit referendum launched an entire wave, if not a chain reaction, of similar social movements in other EU countries. However, for most continental EU countries, unlike Britain, the issue of the EU’s future was tied to the problems of the Schengen Agreement and the euro. Olga Potemkina and Yulia Paukova’s report is dedicated to a detailed analysis of events tied to the Schengen area’s regulation. The uncontrolled inflow of migrants, a crisis in solidarity among EU countries and the referendum in Hungary made the issue of the Schengen agreement one of the most critical on the EU’s 2016 agenda. A solution that suits all has yet to be found.

Jacques Sapir, French economist, professor at the Paris-based Maison des sciences de l’homme, and foreign member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, studied in detail the role of the euro in provoking an economic crisis in many EU countries, as well as the growing gap between Germany (the main beneficiary of the euro) and a considerable number of other member states that essentially lost as a result of the implementation of the single currency in its present form. Valdai Talk with Sapir was dedicated to this issue, and another Valdai report titled “The Euro and Europe” will soon be released. The author looks at not only the situation in, say, Greece, which is the most blatant when the issue of the euro is discussed, but also the issues of other, larger EU member states that, it would seem, are in a more stable situation. In part, Sapir looks at the negative influence of the euro on the financial and economic situation in France and discusses how the problems of the euro, if left unattended, may quickly escalate the situation in nearly all EU countries, with the exception of Germany.

The Brexit was not the only high-profile referendum in the EU in 2016. In early December, another European government fell as a result of a referendum, this time in Italy. The constitutional reform proposed by former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was rejected by an overwhelming majority of the country’s citizens. In this case, we see the same separation from reality, the same split between the elites and society, as with the Brexit. At the same time, Renzi’s reform was based on a de facto rejection of the decentralization that Italy followed for the past 20 years. As a result of the reform, more than ten powers would have been shifted from the country’s regions to the central government in Rome, as well as a consolidation of budgetary authority. It is clear that this was one of Brussels’ demands for the optimization of the financial situation in Italy, but the reform’s project was in sharp dissonance to the entire course toward the federalization of Italy that was being conducted earlier, as well as general EU trends toward building a “Europe of Regions.” It is clear why voters rejected the idea.

In this context, the Valdai Paper of Professor Vincent Della Sala of Trento University is of great interest, as it is dedicated to the experience of Italy and other countries’ federalization. Through the example of the Trentino – Alto Adige (South Tyrol) region of Italy, the author looks at the real successes of this process and how it can be applied to other countries. From the conclusions of this Valdai Paper it becomes clear why Renzi’s attempt at defederalization failed.

Last but not least, it is natural that not only the EU’s internal problems, but also the issues of relations between the EU and Russia were at the focal point of the Valdai Club’s attention. During spring 2016, a programme Valdai report was released, written by a collective of authors led by Timofey Bordachev, titled “Russia and the European Union: Three Questions about the New Principles of Relations.” This report was a de facto Russian experts’ response to the concept of “five principles” of Russia-EU relations formulated by Federica Mogherini. The report had a great public reaction and an entire cycle of its presentations and discussions took place in Brussels and leading EU countries.

Overall, political events in Europe in 2016 confirmed the conclusion of Russian President Vladimir Putin, made during the October meeting of the Valdai Club, that the main dynamic of global development in the near future will be defined between the “globalization of elites” or “globalization for the chosen” and growing demands of “globalization for all” in leading Western countries. In Europe, as well as the US, this conflict became rather obvious in 2016. Because of that, the Valdai Club at its annual meeting in October proposed a new concept of a “global uprising,” which could define global politics in 2017 and beyond. New expert reports dedicated to studying the concept in Europe and other regions of the world will be released in the upcoming year.


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