Europe – What a Difference a Year Makes

_ Mary Dejevsky, chief editorial writer and a columnist, The Independent. London, 2 January 2019.

A calendar year is a useful, if arbitrary, gauge for judging change. But by any measure, the state of Europe looks very different today from how it looked 12 months ago. Let me start from the parochial perspective of the UK – a perspective which risks darkening everything else with its gloom, but is hard to avoid if you are writing, as I am, from London.

This time last year, the UK seemed to be limping towards what was called an “orderly” departure from the European Union. Theresa May was less secure as Prime Minister than she had been, having unwisely called an election which left her without a majority in Parliament. But because no one else wanted the job and because she reached an arrangement with the small contingent of Northern Ireland Protestant MPs (from the Democratic Unionist Party), she was able to govern. Negotiations with Brussels were going slowly, but they were proceeding and, to the surprise of many, met the required deadlines.

A year later, the negotiating process is theoretically complete, but there is deadlock in Parliament, the exit process is stalled, and the whole centuries-old constitutional order of the UK is in question. The British government is now on its third minister for exiting the EU, and Boris Johnson – then foreign secretary – is no longer in government, pursuing his disruptive leadership ambitions from the sidelines.

The “deal” struck by Mrs May with Brussels is a compromise, and as such displeases everyone. As Parliament approaches its Christmas recess, the planned vote has been postponed until January in the hope of some (unlikely) change that could make it acceptable to a majority. Because of the postponement, Mrs May’s position is less secure. MPs are also in a difficult position. The majority support remaining in the EU, but the 2016 referendum produced a majority for Leave, so which has the last word? Parliament or the People? This is not a conflict that the UK’s unwritten constitution is equipped to resolve.

And suddenly, even the actual unity of the UK is in question. The biggest – though not the only – stumbling block with Brussels is how to have, and not have, a border between Northern Ireland (which is a part of the United Kingdom) and the Irish Republic (which is an independent country and committed EU member). This is the UK’s only land border, but it has never functioned as an ordinary international frontier, and its ambiguous and open status was enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which brought an end to 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland as a whole voted to remain in the European Union, and could be given a special Customs status with the EU. But this is opposed by the DUP MPs (who insist that Northern Ireland should be treated exactly the same as the rest of the UK). Such special status for Northern Ireland could also have a knock-on effect on Scotland, which also voted to remain in the EU – and could press for a new independence referendum. In the longer term, it is not impossible that discontent with Brexit could encourage Northern Ireland it to seek unification with the Republic (which would resolve the border issue), and Scotland to vote for independence. The eventual price of Brexit could thus be the break-up of the UK – something that would have been unthinkable this time last year.

Look across at the continent, and the change in a year may have been less dramatic, but is still substantial, in that what looked relatively stable and predictable this time last year also appears to be in flux. Then, Angela Merkel had managed, albeit with difficulty, to form a new Grand Coalition, apparently putting the migration crisis behind her. A year later, after losses in regional elections, Merkel has given up the leadership of her party, the Christian Democrat Union, and may have to bow out as Chancellor before the next election in 2021. Her authority in the EU and beyond may not be what it was; the twilight of the Merkel age is at hand.

At the same time, Emmanuel Macron, the young, gilded President of France, who saw himself, and was widely seen, as the saviour of the European Union in waiting, is suddenly in trouble at home, in part because of the Jupiterian image he cultivated and a popular perception that he governs for the rich. A grass-roots movement, the ‘Gilets jaunes’, is mounting a disruptive challenge from the streets, extracting concessions that could jeopardise Macron’s project for modernising France – and his ambitions for the EU.

The situation does not look much brighter elsewhere. Italy, now governed by a populist coalition, is in the throes of a budget crisis that challenges EU eurozone discipline. Poland and Hungary are at odds with “old Europe”, both because of domestic policies being pursued by their populist governments and because of their opposition to an EU-wide plan for distributing migrants – opposition shared by Austria. Overall, the EU appears divided, not just between “new” and “old” (on courts and human rights), but more widely on migration policy, and, not for the first time, on the constraints of the euro: in other words, on quite fundamental issues.

And yet, and yet… the biggest dramas over the past year have been at national, not at EU, level. Italy’s stubbornness on its economy, for instance, is not so far threatening any EU split. Angela Merkel is still Chancellor and her party is in the hands of her protégée, Annegret Krampf-Karrenbauer. Macron’s wings may have been clipped, but it is difficult for a French president to be removed; he is only 18 months into his five-year mandate, and his ambitions for Europe seem more of a personal mission than a political ploy. The EU has largely remained united, too, on its twin-track Russia policy: it has stood firm on existing sanctions, while continuing dialogue and doing nothing to stop Germany proceeding with Nordstream 2.

Above all, the EU 27 have remained remarkably united in their approach to Brexit. To the UK’s disappointment, there has been no discernible split in the ranks, at the level of either the Commission or the EU Parliament. What is more, a major new project – the creation of a single EU defence capability (if not an actual army) – is going ahead. It is something the UK had always opposed, fearing that it could dilute the Nato alliance, but Brexit removes the UK’s veto, and doubts over the commitment of the Trump administration to Europe have given the defence project an extra push.

So the signals for 2019 are mixed. The past year has given a lesson in the fallibility of forecasts. But it has also shown that, even as individual European nations confront their own crises, the EU itself – as an economic and political bloc – has remained, perhaps unexpectedly, solid. Is this because Brexit has reminded the EU of why it came into being – to prevent another war in Europe? Or because the uncertainties generated by Brexit and Donald Trump have encouraged a fresh appreciation of EU solidarity? Or because, for all its flaws, the European Union remains an idea with the power of attraction – as the countries of the Western Balkans now queue up to join?

Now it may be that this spirit of solidarity is less substantial than it looks, amid all the uncertainties that beset the EU and its members, as the old year gives way to the new: will Emmanuel Macron persist inn his ambitions to reform France, will Angela Merkel still be Chancellor by next December? Could Italy’s challenge spell the end of the eurozone? Will Spain face a new Catalan or Basque crisis? Will migration or the position of the judiciary split “new”and “old” Europe apart? Will the UK really leave the EU on 29 March? And if not, will this be because there is a delay or because Brexit has been abandoned? At this stage I will not be so bold as to forecast the answers. My only prediction is that these will be the questions to ask.


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