2016 was perhaps the most difficult year for Europe since the turn of the century. Under the inept leadership of David Cameron’s cabinet, the United Kingdom voted in favour of leaving the European Union. The United States elected Donald Trump, an outspoken critic of the European project, as its president. The European continent continued to fight the unprecedented influx of refugees and migrants. A wave of right-wing populism threatened to flood the European political space. European institutions quickly lost public trust. Confusion and pessimism reigned in Brussels. Eurosceptics celebrated one victory after another. It seemed that one more blow to European unity, another unforeseen crisis, and the grandiose EU building that had taken decades to put up would start to collapse like a house of cards.
Fortunately for the European people, and for the world as a whole, the apocalyptic scenarios of 2016 did not come to pass. On the whole, Brussels managed to recover from the initial shock of the uppercut delivered by the British people, and European leaders got used to the peculiar political style of the White House’s newest resident. In 2017, populists were stopped first in the Netherlands and then in France. The German political system also fended off the onslaught of the right, which helped it keep the main “Berlin–Paris” political axis intact. While the migration crisis was not fully resolved in 2017, it did fade into the background somewhat compared to 2016. The Spanish government somehow managed to quash yet another outburst of Catalan separatism. The single European currency demonstrated its stability, with none of the Eurozone member countries abandoning the Euro.
If 2016 went down in European history as an annus horribilis, then it would be fair to call 2017 annus mirabilis. Just like in 1683, when the giant army of the Ottoman Empire was miraculously thrown from the walls of Vienna, in 2017, Europe was able to turn back the tide against the motely, but powerful coalition of nationalists, separatists, populists and radical left- and right-wingers. Contrary to the prophesies of pessimists and the hopes of detractors, the European Union held its ground.
If King John III Sobieski can rightfully be considered the hero of 1683, then the hero of 2017 was President of France Emmanuel Macron. The unexpected and precipitous political take-off of the former Minister of the Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs, his ability to break down traditional political barriers and his talent for effectively using populist rhetoric against the populists themselves made the youngest president in the history of the Fifth Republic the poster boy for a unified Europe, not only in France, but in the entire European Union.
However, do we have the right now to claim that the European Union has, following the shocks of 2016, managed to consolidate its victory, banish the opponents of the “European idea” to the side-lines of European politics and, more importantly, eliminate the causes of the deepest crisis in the history of the EU? Unfortunately, as of early 2019, the answer to this question is a resounding “no.”
Last year went by in a state that the ancient Romans would call inters negotium (passive engagement). That is, there was plenty of activity in Brussels and the main European capitals, but it was limited primarily to attempts to find technical solutions to political problems. There was a distinct lack last year of proposals for a new strategy for Europe or a revised understanding of the future of European liberalism. We did not even see any new political slogans. European leaders likely hoped that the situation across the continent would somehow settle after the shocks of 2016, that things would calm down and fall into place, and that they would not be seeing the Janissaries of Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha storming the bastions of Vienna any time soon.
However, in late 2018, Paris became witness to an uprising of “yellow vests,” and Emmanuel Macron’s star began to dim. Angela Merkel’s victory in the German federal elections was pyrrhic: next year, the exogenous Alternative for Germany party will achieve unprecedented success in Bavaria and Hesse and the Chancellor will be forced to play the unenviable role of “lame duck.” All attempts to agree upon a “civilized divorce” with the United Kingdom have thus far come to naught, and the prospect of a new “Rome–Warsaw” axis in Europe being created, which offers few positives in terms of the future of European integration, looms large.
Brussels made little progress last year in its relations with the outside world. Practically the only area in which pan-European unity was demonstrated was in the preservation of the anti-Russian sanctions. In every other area — the difficult dialogue with the United States, the resolution of conflicts in the Middle East and the development of cooperation with China — contradictions among the EU members countries persisted and even intensified. And the EU’s partners, as well as its opponents, exploited this fact.
There is every reason to believe that 2019 will be a year of stern tests both for the European Union as an organization and for the European idea as the association’s ideological foundation. The upcoming elections to the European Parliament in May could deal a number of unpleasant surprises for the Brussels bureaucracy: a victory for the Eurosceptics would not only lead to a change in the composition of the parliament itself, but would also provoke a chain reaction in the European Commission, the leadership of the European Council, the European Central Bank, etc.
The conflict between Rome and Brussels will continue, and the idea of changing the EU’s budget rules may very well gain support in a number of European capitals. Germany will have to go through the painful process of generational change among the political elites. And in Paris, Macron will face the almost impossible task of winning back the trust of the French people without abandoning the programme of unpopular social and economic reforms.
And all this against the background of intense pressure from Washington, the economic expansion of China, the impasse in the resolution of the Ukrainian crisis and relations with Moscow, the possible flareup of the situation in the Middle East and a number of other potential challenges and threats to which Europe will somehow have to respond. Europe is becoming increasingly dependent on the outside world, and, sad but true, the ability of Brussels to influence this world is waning!
Europe will be forced to fight primarily defensive battles throughout the rest of the year and will have to put ideas about a strategic counteroffensive on the backburner for now. Moreover, it is almost inevitable that it will suffer tactical defeats in the process. However, things could go in one of many directions: 2019 could very well turn into a repeat of 2016. Yet it could also be the year of European rejuvenation. Last but not least, it will depend on whether the European political class can find the energy, strength and imagination to generate what cultural anthropologists call “big meanings.”
I do not in any way want to minimize the role of European professionals who are working persistently and painstakingly on specific issues related to the most complicated legal, financial, political and other problems facing Europe. The European Union is without a doubt the most complex integration structure in the world today, and this delicate mechanism requires professional adjustment. However, as the past year has shown, traditional technocratic methods can no longer be used to solve Europe’s problems.
The founding fathers of the European Union had a wealth of experience of practical work in various fields, including politics, business, science and education. But they were romantics and visionaries, not technocrats. What is more, they relied on a galaxy of brilliant European intellectuals and pillars of culture. This is precisely the kind of coalition that Europe needs in 2019.
This article was first published in French on Le Courrier de Russie.