2017 will be risky year for EU (less the UK) but there are also reasons for hope

 

The year 2017 will be an eventful and important year for the EU. The expectation that the UK will set in motion in March a process to leave the EU in two years is a blow – the first time that a full country has decided to leave the EU (Greenland an autonomous region with a link to Denmark had previously left) and one that might suggest the possibility of further countries leaving. The immediate aftermath of the UK according polls conducted by the German Bertelsmann Institute was a strengthening of pro-EU feeling in all other countries and there does not appear to be any country with a majority in favour of leaving the EU. Nevertheless there are strong movements in many remaining member states which are either in favour of outright departure or want to weaken the EU; there is also increased opposition to euro membership in Italy.

With the governments of all other major countries either weak or unstable and with many of their economies still struggling, Germany has in recent years played a leading role, and this will be even more the case in 2017 with the UK having decided to leave. The coming election there in September is likely to see the Christian Democrats re-elected as the largest party and therefore the leading party in a coalition, which could be again with the Social Democrats (SPD) or other parties. Whatever the criticisms made of her, Angela Merkel as the unchallenged leader of the CDU will very probably be re-appointed as chancellor.

 

Italy with caretaker prime minister faces election by March 2018

Within the euro zone Italy had since Matteo Renzi became prime minister in 2014 had a stronger and for Italy relatively long-lasting government. For a time Renzi seemed the most effective leader after Merkel, but he resigned in December as a result of a badly misjudged referendum on constitutional reform. If the overall aim of the reform – to change Italy’s costly and unwieldy bicameral system – was a good one, details were flawed and it became associated with a separate electoral reform, which could have given excessive power to the largest party even if it had well below majority support. In addition, having promised to resign as prime minister if he lost, Renzi had to do so. As a result Italy faces a new period of political instability with elections likely in 2017 and necessary by March 2018. There is a possibility that the Five Star Movement (M5S) might come to power. It can be described as populist but is not as anti-immigrant as other populist movements. It has said that it would have a referendum on euro membership. The leader, Beppe Grillo, is hyper-critical of the other main parties, particular the Democratic Party (PD), which is still led by Renzi, but M5S’s own performance in city governments has been mixed and particularly poor so far in Rome.

 

Spain with new minority government stages economic recovery

Spain, following a year with only a caretaker government, now has one led by the previously incumbent right-of-centre Popular Party (PP), which has been given conditional support by the opposition Socialists (PSOE) and opposed by the newer and more left wing Podemos, as well as being challenged by Catalan nationalism. In the last year the economy has finally, seven years after its collapse in 2008-09, staged an impressive recovery with over half a million extra jobs created in 2016. This seems likely to continue meaning that despite political difficulties Spain is no longer a weak link in the euro zone.

 

First 2017 elections to take place in Netherlands

Elections will take place in the Netherlands in March when the performance of the virulently anti-Muslim party the PVV led by Geert Wilders will be watched. Netherlands’ governments have always been coalitions but the other main parties have said they will not form a coalition with the PVV. Such a strategy may seem right in principle but has the disadvantage that the PVV has been becoming the main opposition.

 

French elections in May should lead to stronger president

The next major EU elections in 2017 will probably be those for the French president and parliament in May. At present there are three leading candidates each with about a quarter of likely votes according to opinion polls: Marine Le Pen leader of the Front National, Francois Fillon, the choice of the right of centre, and Emmanuel Macron, a centrist who was minister in the Socialist government before resigning to declare his independent candidacy. President Hollande is not standing. The Socialist Party is holding a primary to choose its official candidate but none of the potential official Socialist candidates looks likely to rival Macron. Macron has been making speeches emphasizing his difference with Le Pen by giving full-hearted support to the EU and declaring that France should be open and multi-cultural. Fillon on the other hand may try to win over potential Le Pen voters by being more sceptical of the EU (though not in favour of a referendum on it) and appealing to identity politics. He has also called for drastic cuts in the size of the public sector, one of the largest in Europe relative to the economy, by reducing state employment by half a million. As a declared admirer of Mrs Thatcher, he may also pursue policies which increase inequality. Even if these succeed in helping the development of private sector enterprise,they could increase the number of people who feel left out and so could be vulnerable to Le Pen.

At the moment opinion polls suggest that in the second round of presidential elections between the two leading candidates in the first round, assuming Le Pen comes first or second, that either Fillon or Macron would win by between 60 and 65% of the vote against 35-40% for Le Pen. Given the surprise Leave vote in the EU and the Trump victory in the US, there is no room for complacency that this apparently comfortable lead will be reflected in the final vote.

If Fillon or Macron can win by a reasonably strong majority his government will at least for a time have the potential to be a near-equal partner with Germany led by Merkel, a role that President Hollande has not been able to fulfill. Unlike Hollande, both Macron and Fillon argue that difficult and painful reforms are needed to revive the French economy and to strengthen the fiscal position. They are not therefore setting themselves up for a dramatic decline in support when it becomes apparent that they cannot meet promises made during the campaign as happened with Hollande.

 

Merkel likely to remain chancellor after September election

Germany’s election takes place, as is traditional there, in September. The far-right party, the Alternative fur Deutschland, at present polling at 13%, is less of a threat there to the mainstream parties than similar parties are in the many other EU countries, despite the bold decision of Angela Merkel to welcome over a million refugees in 2015. Still, the far-right will for the first time in post-Second World War Germany have seats in the federal parliament, and its presence there is likely to be quite significant.

If she can hold the far-right opposition to its present level of support, Merkel is likely to achieve another convincing electoral victory. Her ability to remain an authoritative but not authoritarian chancellor after 13 years in the post is remarkable but at present she faces no major challenge from any competitor for the post. Germany led by Merkel has been a lynchpin of stability and liberal multi-culturalism in the EU as a whole.

 

Criticism of Germany’s fiscal policy are valid but should not be exaggerated

On the other hand Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schauble, has been accused of dictating harshly restrictive monetary and fiscal policies which have served its interests more than its euro area partners. Schauble is the second most powerful figure in German politics. His popularity means that Merkel would find it very hard to overrule him and risk provoking his resignation.

In fact the monetary policy of the European Central Bank, in promising if required unlimited intervention to keep key countries in the euro area and keeping interest rates close to zero has been highly criticized both by Schauble and by the Bundesbank. In fiscal policy Schauble has largely got his own way which has is in some respects been excessively harsh, especially in still refusing to write off un-repayable Greek and Portuguese debt and being unwilling to take into account the pressures on Italy’s public finances by the need to tackle the bulk of the cross-Mediterranean migrant flow in the last 12 months and suffering severe earthquakes. On the other hand, German policy has been consistent with holding the euro area together, and, whatever happened the post-2008-09 crash period would have been a difficult one inside the euro area as it has been outside the euro area. While some criticisms of German policy are justifiable it is not helpful to suggest that the difficulties of other countries should be solved more in Germany than domestically. Ireland has for several years shown that a euro zone crisis country could recover and in 2016 Spain recovered with the addition of over half a million extra jobs.

 

Role of EU institutions is important but likely to remain low profile

Given the upsets in the UK and the US in 2016 and the substantial support for right wing populist parties in many EU countries there are clearly risks that the cohesion of the EU apart from the UK. However, there are also grounds for hope that it can hold together despite both internal strains and unpredictable policies of the US and Russia, as well as the possibility of large new flows of refugees via Turkey or Libya. The ability to do so depends primarily on what happens in member states. The performance and decisions of the EU institutions, the Commission, Parliament and Court of Justice are important in the longer term but it is unlikely that they will do anything in the coming 12 months which has a decisive impact on the EU’s prospects. Following the departure of the Socialist Martin Schulz to return to German politics, the new president of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani a member of the centre-right European Peoples’ Party is likely to have a lower profile. The European Commission, headed by Jean-Claude Juncker, has kept a generally low profile and is likely to do so.

One delicate issue is how far to go in criticizing authoritarian governments in Poland and Hungary for actions that seem to come into conflict with commitments made at the time of EU entry on principles like the independence of the judiciary. Overall, the EU institutions are unlikely to and should not push for more power since this could provoke a backlash in countries other than the UK  but they will still have important roles to play in keeping the EU functioning in very difficult circumstances.