With the election of President Macron in May and the guaranteed re-election of Angela Merkel, the European Union and the state of European affairs were supposed to return to the positive. Unfortunately, a series of recent events have exposed deep problems in Europe with the rise of AfD in Germany, the call for independence by Catalonia, the UK-EU tensions over the terms of Brexit, the election of Sebastian Kurz in Austria, and the recent assassination of a Maltese journalist. These recent events, prior to the European Council meeting on October 19/20 in Brussels, display domestic tensions and the need for greater unity at the EU level. But both seems incompatible at the moment.
Despite winning a fourth-term as Chancellor (past analyses here and here), Angela Merkel has yet to finalize the structure of her government. The strong results by the Alternative for Germany (AfD), extreme right party, was a response to Merkel’s Willkommenspolitik towards refugees since 2015. AfD capitalized on the fear associated to immigration and the perceived undermining of German identity. Chancellor Merkel is working on the coalition talk. On Sunday, Merkel’s CDU lost an election in the northern state of Lower Saxony to the SPD, which could affect her upcoming coalition talks. With the decision by SPD not to enter in a coalition with the CDU, Ms. Merkel will have to move towards the option of a Jamaica Coalition (with the pro-liberal and green party). The talks to form a coalition will be difficult considering the differences of policies and options on fundamental issues from immigration, EU reforms, taxation policies and environmental protection.
In the case of the UK-EU relationship as part of the Brexit negotiations, the current tension is centered around the financial obligations of the UK, or the net contributions of the UK to the EU’s budget in 2019 and 2020.
Until an agreement on the UK financial obligations is set, the EU is not willing to move forward regarding the terms and type of relationship between the UK and the EU post-Brexit. Prime Minister May changed the tone with her recent speech in Florence and confirmed that the UK will “honour commitments we have made during the period of our membership.” But the EU is expecting more concrete terms coming from the British leader. At home, PM May is facing a difficult front from the hard brexiters, framing the financial obligations as a ‘divorce bill,’ and members of her own party. She appears to have lost credibility domestically affecting her ability to shape a common position, and her European counterparts are concerned about her ability to stir the negotiations and ultimately deliver. Until the question of financial contributions is settled, PM May will not be able to move forward and discuss the terms of the future relationship between the UK and the EU. As reported by the Guardian, European leaders are the ones overruling EU chief negotiator, Mr. Barnier, whom suggested opening talks about the transition phase. But it appears that some European capitals are not ready to respond to May’s call. Ultimately, “the problem is not in the commission so you will not find the solution in the commission.” Therefore, the upcoming European Council will be critical for PM May to make a her case with as many EU leaders as possible.
On Sunday, Sebastian Kurz became one of the youngest elected leaders, at 31, as the Chancellor of Austria. Mr. Kurz, leader of the conservative right wing Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), won the national election with 31 percent of the vote. The Social Democratic Party of Austria, which currently governs in coalition with People’s
Party, received 26.7 percent, while the Freedom Party, extreme-right, had 27.4 percent. Traditionally, the People’s Party and the Social Democratic Party govern in a coalition, but this time, Kurz may be forming a coalition with the extreme-right taking the country back to 2000 when Jörg Haider led the country triggering political sanctions by the EU. Austria is one of the wealthiest EU countries with one of the lowest unemployment level and highest standard of living. But during the 2015-16 migration crisis, Austria took part of Merkel’s Willkommenspolitik welcoming a considerable number of refugees. During his tenure as Foreign Minister, Mr. Kurz, was behind the drive to seal the Western Balkan route in 2016 and was critical. The theme of the election, as it was the case in the other western countries, was identity, in particular anti-immigration and anti-Islamization. For instance, he has been calling for effective defence of the EU’s external borders, a stop to illegal immigration and curbs on foreigners’ access to welfare payments. “Anti-immigration populism and nationalism” wrote Steven Erlanger and James Kanter of the New York Times “are challenging the European Union’s commitment to open borders for trade and immigration.” In the coming days, Kurz will be building his coalition, but a move to the extreme-right appears as the new normal for Austria.
The continuous tension between Madrid and Catalonia represents a considerable crisis in one of the largest Eurozone economies (read two recent analyses here and here). After a referendum, considered by Carles Puigdemont, as a victory towards the independence of Catalonia from Spain, he has failed to call for it during his address to Catalan lawmakers on October 10. PM Rajoy asked Mr. Puigdemont to clarify his address by tomorrow (October 19). In case of a failure to comply, Madrid may use its emergency powers to take administrative control of the region by invoking the article 155 sending the country into a deeper political crisis. The tensions between Madrid and Catalonia continue to escalate despite a recent call by Mr. Puigdemont asking PM Rajoy to initiate a negotiation in order to find a solution.
Last but not least, Daphne Caruana Galizia, Maltese journalist, was assassinated on Monday in a car bombing in the smallest EU member state, Malta. She had made a name for herself exposing ramping corruption at every levels of the Maltese society and political arena. During the Panama Papers’ scandal, she exposed the link between politicians and shell companies. More recently, she uncovered financial dealings between family members of Azerbaijan’s president and Malta’s prime minister, forcing snap elections. Her assassination is latest attempt to undermining freedom of press and expression in Europe and it requires proper response and inquiry by the Maltese government and the European Union.
All these recent issues illustrate considerable challenges for the future unity of the bloc, but as well expose major systemic and domestic failures. These issues related to ethno-nationalism, populism, secessionist desires are ramping and require stronger domestic initiatives to shrink economic and social inequalities, address sub-national identity and cultural fears, and bring back a certain civility in the political discourse. At the EU level, these crises illustrate the a growing disconnect between Brussels and the capitals. Fascinating enough the EU is being criticized for being too little integrated on issues of migration and being too passive on questions of regional secession, but the EU does always not have a mandate to dictate policies and rules in certain areas of political life.
Each selected case exposes the undermining of core EU values from freedom of expression, to maintaining democratic values, inclusion, and ultimately the centrality of the rule of law. Austria is another piece of the European populist puzzle and highlight the shift toward the extreme-right. Hungary and Poland are the examples of the undermining of EU values and a clear shift towards non-democratic regimes. For instance, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has championed what is refered as “illiberal democracy.” Austria illustrates that the East-West divide continues to widen. Populism is vibrant and spreading throughout Europe and it is shacking the democratic foundations of EU countries and the EU.
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