For the European Union and the wider European region 2016 has been a year of intense political, social and economic tensions. The continent continues to be subject to the negative impact of crises affecting neighbouring states, as well as growing political rifts within EU member countries. The terrorist threat, strained international relations, and stagnant economic indicators has maintained the unstable environment facing Europe since 2015. With 2017 fast approaching, European institutions, national governments, private companies, and general public are likely to continue to be exposed to a range of security, financial and political risks.
2017: A year of key elections
The political tensions within the EU will be exemplified by key elections that will be held throughout 2017. Three polls will embody the current anti-establishment push that comes against the backdrop of the Europe-wide migrant crisis and elevated terrorist threat.
In March 2017, Holland will hold general elections that are highly likely to see the country experience a rightward turn. While it remains unlikely that Geert Wilders will garner sufficient support to form a government with his Party of Freedom (PVV), the nationalist party has been campaigning for strict anti-migrant policies and has built momentum following Donald Trump’s victory.
In April 2017, France will choose its new president and put an end to the political debacle of Francois Hollande’s single-term presidency. While it is unlikely that the Front National will score a decisive victory, the right-wing party is promoting a strong nationalist agenda that will almost certainly influence the overall national debate pushing the centre-right Les Republicains to adopt a stricter stance on immigration and security issues.
For Germany, 2017 will be a major political test. The increased terrorist threat linked the infiltration of Islamist militants within the hundreds of thousands of migrants that arrived in Germany since 2015 strongly weakened Angela Merkel’s position. The October 2017 polls are likely to see a boost to opposition movements and the nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.
While these key 2017 elections are unlikely to see the rise to power of major right-wing parties, they will almost certainly weaken traditional political groups, thus ushering in a heightened risk of instability.
Growing tensions regarding the policy toward Eastern Europe
In 2017, the EU’s relations to Eastern Europe and Russia will increasingly become a factor of internal political tensions, as member states and key parties gradually call for a review of the bloc’s sanctions against Moscow, as well as the union’s stance on Ukraine.
Substantial elements of the EU’s political sphere are criticising the current sanctions regime and Brussels’ overall policy toward Russia. With a potential shift in Washington’s stance on the issue boosted by the election of President Donald Trump, France’s centre-right and right-wing parties as well as Italian, Dutch, Greek, and Spanish political groupings may push for a re-adjustment of EU policy. This would further create tensions between Brussels’ institutions and national governments, thus weakening the EU at the international level.
The rising voices for rapprochement with Moscow in Western Europe are likely to find support from partners in central and Eastern Europe who have been advocating for a more balanced relation with Russia. Hungary’s Orban as well as the newly elected presidents of Bulgaria and Moldova are expected to continue to advocate for less divisive policies regarding Moscow. This in turn will almost certainly lead to more tense relations with Kiev.
These opposing views regarding Russia are likely to further challenge the EU’s foreign policy standing and lead to increased political rivalries within member states, potentially strengthening anti-establishment parties.
An unstable relation with Turkey
2016 has seen a deterioration in overall EU relations with Ankara. This was largely due to Brussels’ opposition to Turkey’s post-coup policies. It is unlikely that ties will improve within the next 12 months and this could potentially lead to substantial political and security issues for Europe.
The assassination of Russian Ambassador Karlov makes it highly likely that Turkey will continue to conduct its post-coup crackdown targeting police, public servants, academics, media workers and business personnel. This will periodically result in criticism from the EU. There is a low risk that tensions between Brussels and Ankara may result in the partial breakdown of the migrant deal that has been in place since March 2016. Such a scenario could potentially see the arrival of new waves of migrants on the Greek coasts and in the Balkans thus renewing the crisis and increasing the risk of Islamist infiltration within these mass movements.
While Ankara is unlikely to fully break-away from its ties with the EU, Turkey will continue to pursue an eastward policy throughout 2017 by trying to improve commercial ties with Russia and setting up working relations with Iran. This will generate renewed foreign policy challenges for the EU, as it risks being further edged out of strategic issues including energy deals and the Syrian conflict.
The banality of violence will define the “new normal”
Radical Islamist terrorism and the threat posed by the Islamic State will remain a key challenge for Europe throughout 2017. With hundreds of EU nationals potentially making their way back to the continent from Syria, Iraq and Libya, Sunni extremist networks are likely to boost their recruitment structures throughout the EU.
Europe will continue to face an elevated risk of single-assailant attacks carried out by militants inspired by, or directly linked to, transnational Islamist groups. Middle East-based organisations will also continue to try to conduct complex assaults throughout the region as they view it as a key area in their global strategy. This “new normal” is highly likely to continue to negatively affect tourism in the most affected countries and lead to a wider negative economic impact.
Politically, 2017 will continue to see discrepancies between the stated mission to defeat radical Islamists and the limited capabilities put in place both from an operational and legal point of view. Governments will keep on struggling with budgetary constraints and the limited scope of their anti-terrorist push. This will expose authorities to potentially strong criticism from opposition parties in the likely event of further attacks.
Risk of institutional instability
From an institutional standpoint, the EU will continue in 2017 to face the fallout from the Brexit vote. It is likely that within the next 12 months the British government will be in a position to implement additional measures linked to the UK’s break from the EU. This will probably lead to limited financial uncertainties but heightened political negotiations over the post-Brexit situation in the EU.
The election of President Donald Trump is expected to lead to tense relations between Brussels and Washington. As Trump starts implementing his agenda, the EU will have to aim to maintain a cordial diplomatic relations with a key ally and adapt to a potential refocus in overall U.S global strategy that is likely to have a lasting impact over Europe.