In December 2016 Brexit and Trump left political commentators across the globe with more questions than answers and among them one in particular: will 2017 be the same? One year after and with the benefit of hindsight we can offer a timid “No” as an answer.
On 1 January 2017, as people enjoyed their New Year celebrations, members of Europe’s political establishment would have been forgiven for breathing a collective sigh of relief.
The year 2016 had been testing. This was the year of Brexit, Trump, sluggish economic recovery, and beloved artists dying too soon. It was a year during which profound societal divisions were exposed and the politics of hate reared its ugly head. Both the US presidential elections and Brexit were particularly rancorous, and the latter culminated in tragedy after the politically motivated murder of Labour MP Jo Cox days before the referendum vote. The populist appeals and emotional nationalism that perpetuated these campaigns was considered part of a wider global trend, particularly in Europe, which had seen the continent’s political landscape shift to the right.
Thus, as 2017 began, it genuinely felt as though Europe was on the edge of profound political change. How would the continent react to this uncertainty? What direction would the EU take after Brexit? What national and transnational debates would consume European discourse? With this in mind, we founded Considering Europe: our small contribution to European-wide discussion on topics concerning all of us.
As the events of 2017 unfolded, we attempted to provide comment, analysis and discussion on issues ranging from migration in the Mediterranean to secession in Europe’s sub-states, from Brexit negotiations in Brussels, to the rise of populism and illiberalism in Eastern Europe. The year 2017 was one of fast moves and ever-changing puzzles, and here is what Considering Europe had to say.
The Ups and Downs of Populism
The years following the eurocrisis saw the rise of political actors that were often labelled populist. They were fairly new political parties that fell outside the traditional party politics spectrum. Populist parties gained increasing popularity and even joined governments in some countries. Populist parties were often nationalist and criticised the political establishment of exploiting the power they held, and using it for the benefit of themselves as well as foreigners – while forgetting ‘the people’.
The influence of these political movements was such that the year 2016 could quite reasonably be considered the year of populist uprising, with both the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s election shaking the geo-political establishment to its core.. For a while, it seemed as though nothing could halt this political shift. In response to the largely inadequate responses of mainstream parties and politicians across Europe, our founder Jaakko Salonen suggested an approach that intended not to deepen political division and oppose the creation of a black and white narrative in which the political reality was constructed of two opposite sides. Instead we argued that political dialogue and the recognition of political pluralism was essential in the normalisation of European politics.
Indeed, in 2017 there were signs that the momentum of populist and nationalist parties was slowing. In France, the Front National leader Marine Le Pen didn’t win the presidential elections, losing to Emmanuel Macron; a young pro-EU candidate emphasising liberalism – but also somewhat outside the traditional division of right and left. The French elections were far from normal, punctuated by scandals, vitriol and mud-slinging between candidates. However, they undoubtedly represented an important test in European politics. In September, Germany also proved that nationalism wasn’t necessarily the dominant force in politics.
Europhiles breathed a sigh of relief after both these elections, yet our coverage of the political developments in Eastern Europe demonstrated that liberal democracy still faces very real threats from those who wish to create an alternative political system in Europe, one underpinned by nationalism and illiberalism.
The Hungarian PM, Viktor Orbán, has become one of Europe’s leading advocates of such an ‘illiberal’ style of democracy. Orbán’s right-wing Fidesz government have been accused of creating an unlevel playing field by eroding democratic checks and balances, ensuring that his party maintains a stranglehold over power. In 2017, Orbán’s illiberal vision was taken to a new level after Fidesz passed legislation aimed at driving the American-Hungarian Central European University out of the country, as well as launching systematic attacks against the University’s founder George Soros. This was accompanied by the continuation of Fidesz’s virulently anti-migrant platform, forming part of an overarching strategy to portray the EU as an overweening transnational power attempted to meddle in the internal affairs of Hungary. In our analysis, we explored the idiosyncratic politics of Orbán, reflecting upon whether the political protests of civil society actors had done anything to undermine the Hungarian Premier’s seemingly impregnable position.
In Poland, similar political dynamics shaped 2017. Since coming to power in 2015, the Conservative-Traditionalist Law & Justice Party (PiS) have adopted evermore conservative policies adopted using increasingly authoritarian methods. They too have opposed the EU’s attempts to redistribute refugees and migrants among member states, claiming to act in the interest of the Polish people and protect one of the most ethnically homogeneous and culturally united societies in Europe. But PiS’s heavy-handed political intervention has caused domestic unrest, and issues surrounding Polish identity and the future of the Polish nation have become increasingly contested. We examined how the government’s proposed judicial reforms were both emblematic and symptomatic of these wider issues in the country.
One Year of Migrations
While the populist tide seemed to have temporarily receded this year, the continuous flow of migrants have tested the asylum and immigration policies of Member States. At the end of 2017, the number of asylum seekers entering the EU increased by 55 percent compared to the same period last year. The riskiest journey and the fastest one from North Africa is via the Mediterranean sea, which claimed the lives of 3 thousand people this year. In July, anti-immigrant parties and a long media campaign, which defined NGO ships saving migrants as “the taxi of the sea”, built pressure on the Italian Government. In August, the Minister of the Interior asked NGOs to follow a code of conduct, in a move that we described as “ a moral u-turn” and as the wrong cure to the wrong disease.
The future of refugees does not get any more stable on European soil either. In April, we documented the inconsistencies of Swedish immigration policies and proposed some steps toward increasing social cohesion and turn ethnic diversity into an asset.
To date, European leaders have not been able to reach any meaningful agreement on how to deal with the mass migration of people. The now infamous Dublin Agreement remains the only European framework on the table. Its reform has been continuously opposed by the Visegrad group and and the general unwillingness to recognise it as a European responsibility.
The European political status quo seems unlikely to change, given that the newly-elected far-right Austrian government has just joined the anti-immigration camp. Such stalemate has been allowed to persist thanks to the controversial deal the EU signed with Turkey in March 2016, but this year has seen relations with Turkey rapidly deteriorate. As we pointed out, the authoritarian turn imposed on the country by President Erdogan has made any accession talks to the EU futile, with diplomatic relations between Brussels and Ankara reaching an impasse.
While some EU borders were crossed by migrants, some others were hotly debated by politicians. The British government had to face the thorny question of the Irish one, after it confirmed its commitment to leave the Custom Union. Indeed, 2017 marked the beginning of the Brexit saga and the endless fights within the Tory party between soft and hard Brexiteers. Fights that produced six interesting white papers describing how the government sees the future UK-EU relationship. Our editor looked with skepticism at the first of these on the post-Brexit customs arrangements, while our team draw the attention to the unresolved question of Gibraltar’s future.
The past year has, indeed, left unresolved some of the most important issues we covered. Catalunya’s independence odyssey seems still far from over, although the biggest challenges for Europe will be managing the relationship with an unpredictable American presidency and the worryingly nationalistic Russian election.
Finally, 2017 has been the year Considering Europe published its first piece. Starting from a network of students we moved our first steps in the blogsphere with the aim of adding depth and breadth to the coverage of European politics. The forgettable 2016 motivated us to try to slowly fix the the inherent vice of the EU polity, namely: the lack of a common public sphere.
While our nations become economically interdependent following the motto of an “ever closer union”, the political awareness and analysis of this interdependence seems to be missing or confined to academic papers. As newspapers predominantly cover our different national debates, we have a duty, as Europeans, to be informed on what happens beyond our borders and on our common challenges.
So the need for more Considering Europe is there and well alive. Stay tuned, as there is much more to come.
And thanks for following the journey and do help us spread the word in 2018, too.
Stefano, Luca & Jaakko
Considering Europe Editorial team