As December is the month to look back on the year and take stock of what happened, what can we say about 2016? For sure that it was a demanding year, a year full of challenges and difficulties for both the EU and my home country Spain. Although the worst of the economic crisis seemed to be behind us, Brexit, the refugee crisis and the terrorist attacks in Belgium, France and Germany have made 2016 a year everybody would rather forget. For Spain, 2016 was the year of snap national elections and ten long months of negotiations between political parties. It was also the (not much celebrated) 30th anniversary of Spain’s EU membership and increasing negative attitudes towards the European Union as I described in my very first post on this blog.
It looks as if the economic crisis is more or less under control. However, some countries are still suffering its consequences. Greece was one of the countries hit hardest by the financial crisis and by the austerity measures installed to overcome it. A few days ago, Prime Minister Tsipras announced a pre-Christmas bonus for pensioners in order to give a bit of breathing space to some of the more vulnerable citizens. It led to harsh criticism of creditors.
In Spain, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has praised the recovery of the Spanish economy but at the same time pointed to the structural unemployment and the low productivity growth of small and medium enterprises. The austerity measures implemented in the country to face the consequences of the financial crisis have entailed cuts primarily in the welfare system, which made growing inequality one of the most urgent issues to deal with next year.
The result of the Brexit referendum was a shock for the entire EU. Although the referendum took place in June, there is still no information about the timeframe and it remains unclear whether there will be a soft or hard Brexit. Neither do we know if it will be necessary to vote in both houses of parliament to give Theresa May permission to trigger Article 50. The British government has appealed the decision of the UK High Court and there might be a solution in January. In the meantime, the UK remains divided between those who want to stay in the EU and those who want to leave. And, as if this weren’t complicated enough, Scotland’s first Minister has threatened with a new independence referendum in case Brexit becomes a reality.
In Spain, Brexit will have a serious impact. The UK is one of our top export destinations and a large number of tourists come from the UK. Also, there is a migration issue as a great number of British people live in Spain and the UK is the number one receptor country of Spanish migrants. What will happen to these people is one of Spain’s main concerns regarding Brexit. In 2017 we will urgently have to work on a plan to protect the rights of these citizens.
The refugee crisis
The refugee crisis that began in 2015 has continued during 2016 turning into the EU’s main challenge. The refugee crisis is a humanitarian crisis that has created deep divisions in the EU over how to deal with it. This situation has increased xenophobic and racist attitudes that anti-immigration and racist political parties (such as Front National in France, the Freedom Party in Austria or Fidesz and Jobbik in Hungary) have taken advantage of by dispersing messages about the alleged threat migrants represent for Europe. Successfully, as recent research of the Pew Research Center, shows: many Europeans are concerned that refugees will increase the risk of terrorism in their countries. In spite of the fact that the European Commission has implemented some measures to face the crisis European citizens disapprove how the EU is handling the refugee crisis. Especially the controversial EU-Turkey deal reached in March 2016 has attracted criticism from human rights groups and caused protests and demonstrations all over Europe. The main points of criticism are the return to Turkey of all irregular immigrants who arrive in Greece and the concessions made to Turkey in exchange: increased resettlement of Syrian refugees residing in Turkey, acceleration of visa liberalisation for Turkish nationals and increase of existing financial support for Turkey’s refugee population. In spite of this deal which due to the recent developments in Turkey has become even more fragile than it used to be, the refugee crisis is far from being solved. In fact, the situation has become even riskier for migrants as smugglers use increasingly more dangerous routes to avoid migrants being deported. This makes the coordinated fight against smugglers an absolute priority for 2017.
In Spain, we witness the failure of the relocation compromise: so far the Spanish government has only received 900 refugees out of the 17.000 it had agreed to. One of the challenges of the new Spanish government in 2017 is to actually fulfil its commitment.
Just a few days before Christmas, the news about the terrorist attack on a Berlin Christmas market brutally destroyed our hopes for a peaceful end of the year. It was the latest attack in a long list that includes the Brussels bombings, the Nice truck attack, the Normandy church attack and a series of stabbings across Europe. Certainly, 2016 will go down in history as the year terror came to post-war Europe. Even though the EU and Europol see the fight against terrorism as a top priority and the coordination between the security forces of Member States has improved, Europe still seems unable to tackle this painful issue efficiently.
In Spain, we all remember the devastating train bombings in Madrid in 2004. It was one of the deadliest attacks in Europe with 191 dead and more than 1800 injured. After the attacks in Paris in 2015, the Spanish government has reinforced its plan of prevention and protection against terrorism.
Just as 2016, next year will be an important election year. The upcoming 2017 elections are especially significant because of the crisis of social democracy in Europe and the growing popularity of anti-immigration and populist parties. In the last days of the year, we witnessed the victory of the Green Party’s candidate in Austria and the resignation of Italian Prime Minister Renzi after losing the constitutional reform referendum. Previously, we observed the rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) in regional elections. In 2017 we will have national elections in two important Member States: the French presidential election and the German Parliamentary election. The choice of the leaders of these countries will be crucial for the whole EU because of their outstanding role in EU decision-making. The election year will kick off with the parliamentary election in the Netherlands, a founder member of the European project gone Eurosceptic with Wilder’s anti-migration Freedom Party leading in the opinion polls.
In Spain, we finally have a new government after two general elections and 10 month of political impasse. However, the fragmented parliament and the proven inability to reach agreements among the main political parties predict an unstable and perhaps shorter legislature for Rajoy’s cabinet than is generally expected. We hope that next year our political leaders will show their ability to put the interest of the citizens before their own.
2016 was an annus horribilis for the EU, a year we would love to delete from our collective and individual memory, and as we are approaching 2017 our hearts are filled with fear and anticipation about what may happen next. 2017 will be a year with many key decisions to make and complex challenges to face. Fifty years after the signing of the Treaties of Rome, it could be the year of the disintegration of the EU or the year in which the EU will pull itself together, determined to face the future whatever it may bring. With this in mind I wish you all a happy New Year – thank you for reading my modest contributions to ‘reconnecting Europe’.
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