The EU has seemingly survived the existential crises of the Brexit vote, the ascent of Donald Trump, and the rise of the far right across the continent. But the union and its international influence remain fragile. The populist wave may have peaked, but it has certainly not passed; refugee deals with Turkey and Libya are under threat, and the southern and eastern neighbourhoods remain turbulent. Against this backdrop, we asked our national offices to outline their governments' greatest hope and greatest fear for foreign and European policy in 2018.
Years ago Angela Merkel used to respond to questions about the near future that ‘Europe will emerge stronger from the crisis’. In 2017, times have changed. Jean Claude Juncker may have felt ‘fresh winds in the sails’ of Europe, but that is mostly because the ship did not sink in the election storms of Austria, the Netherlands, and France.
Compared to 2016, 2017 might look like a turnaround. But from Berlin’s perspective, 2018 will be more significant, not least because of the protracted search for a German government, which is costing Europe at least six months of political momentum.
For Berlin, the best hope for Europe in 2018 is to muddle through. Specifically, the hope is that there will be no new spike in refugee flows, and that Europe will be spared another major terrorist attack or a significant rise of the crime rate among migrant communities. Such a respite would allow some much-needed time to develop, debate and decide a more robust response to the migration challenge.
There will be little room for high flying plans like Macron’s agenda as outlined in his Sorbonne speech. Martin Schulz’s ‘United States of Europe’ will not come any closer in the next twelve months, either. The centrifugal trend will remain strong over the coming year. Despite a favourable economic outlook, the German political class seems to prefer smaller steps over grand designs, largely due to a fear of failure. Berlin needs a low intensity year to avoid being pushed onto the defensive while trying to keep up some pressure for reform.
As to the greatest worry, the German view would focus on risks beyond Europe. Matters on the continent are not good, but seem predictable even in the worst case scenarios. A major conflict involving great powers would be a crisis of different dimension. The greatest worry would thus be an escalation of the Korean crisis, at some point triggering a US military strike to destroy North Korea’s nuclear capability, with substantial collateral damage ending many lives on the Korean peninsula. Should the North Korean regime survive such a strike, a ‘political nuclear winter’ could follow, as relations between the US and China would freeze over, extending into the regional alliance system and international trade.
While geographically far away from the epicenter of conflict, Europe would be significantly hit by its fallout: Transatlantic relations would take another blow; Europe’s economy could fall victim to a new Cold War in East Asia, and the nuclear non-proliferation system could break down, triggering nuclear arms races in regions closer to Europe.
The bigger the nuclear casualties, the deeper the fall in political temperature of world affairs is likely to be, with a rules-based international order disintegrating further and great power confrontation becoming the dominant paradigm.
The indirect shock might even be more detrimental to Europe than a direct blow such as the refugee crisis of 2015/16: Though Europe might be less affected than countries in wider East Asia, the shake-up could deepen the cracks in the EU’s construction rather than lead to a closer cooperation.
Top of Theresa May’s New Year’s resolutions for 2018 is to bring to life the idea of ‘Global Britain’. This is the dazzling international role that, she has promised voters, will replace the constrained and undervalued ‘European Britain’.
But despite the UK’s military strength, its world class diplomacy, and its leadership on international aid, it is unclear what this notion really means. So what May’s government hopes for next year is a crisis or two that would allow them to define this ambition through action. Something that shows that Britain is a serious actor, with the ability to get the right people round the table to find solutions that protect the interests of the UK and the liberal order. That it draws strength from its special relationships, but that when needs must it can also take its own line – its challenge to Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as a capital of Israel being a case in point.
If this sounds selfish, it is because it is. Time is not on Theresa May’s side in delivering Global Britain to UK voters. In 2018 she needs to create facts on the ground that make clear that the UK will not fade into global insignificance after March 2019, when it leaves the EU.
This is not just about proving to voters that they were not lied to about the ‘huge opportunity’ that Brexit represents. The demonstration is also about convincing EU members that the UK still matters enough diplomatically that they should co-operate closely with it on security and trade matters, and give it privileged access to council working groups and formats that shape European foreign policy. And it must be a sufficiently emphatic display to win over Europeans who have been put off by the UK’s chaotic approach to the separation negotiations.
Theresa May’s single biggest fear for 2018 is that the story she and her government have been spinning about the UK’s ongoing relevance, and about Europe’s need to keep the UK close after Brexit, will be exposed as false. She needs Global Britain to put on a good show in 2018, both to keep her domestic political situation under control, but also to remind other European countries of the valued partner the UK can be – evidence of which has been thin on the ground of late.
For Theresa May, Global Britain has to become real in order to secure a good arrangement for the UK in its future relationship with the EU. As superficial as the plan is, there is no plan B. Splendid isolation stopped being so appealing for the UK a century ago. In an interconnected world, the prospect looks positively frightening.
In 2017, a new president was elected in France on a clear pro-European platform, and with the intention to reclaim a strong international role for France. With Emmanuel Macron’s victory, France aims at returning to the forefront not just of Europe, but of global affairs.
Consolidating the new momentum in Europe is obviously France’s key priority. With the uncertainties around the next German government, and several other roadblocks to be overcome, this is far from guaranteed.
For France, this is not just about tackling the European Union’s internal challenges. A European renewal should also help Europe to assert its views and interests on the global stage. In Macron’s vision, this new European impetus needs to be extrovert too: as he said in his speech at the Sorbonne, only Europe can “ensure a real sovereignty, i.e. our capacity to exist in the current world”.
Hence France’s renewed ambition – against the global backdrop of a retreating United States and increasingly assertive China – to act as the champion of multilateralism. Europe will better thrive if intrinsically global challenges, such as terrorism, migration, climate change, and digitalisation, are tackled under a multilateral approach. France’s hopes for a more effective multilateralism go beyond immediate security crises such as in Syria or in the Sahel, as illustrated in Macron’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly last September 2017.
France’s hope is that the multilateral architecture is strong enough to resist the current assaults, allowing Europe time to get its act together. Macron’s initiatives even suggest that he plans that international institutions succeed in reforming themselves in a direction that will make them more effective, more responsive, and closer to a “multilateralism that protects”, to paraphrase one of his famous slogans.
The worry for the French leader is that something could trigger the demise of this multilateral order – in particular, renewed international proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. From a French perspective, international security is among the primary missions of the multilateral order.
France’s official assessment of the current international environment points to an unprecedented “concentration of threats and crises”, but notes that “proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems remains a particularly troubling development”, which could pose “direct challenges to… international institutions and norms.”
France is particularly concerned about the potential for proliferation in the context of three international security crises. The repeated use of chemical weapons in Syria is all the more appalling in France’s views given the lack of meaningful international response. The Élysée is also vehemently opposed to US moves which risk the unravelling of the Iran nuclear deal. And Paris is closely following the deteriorating situation around the Korean peninsula, which it sees as at serious risk of conflagration.
The latter case is a significant example of how Macron is keen to maintain France‘s global reach, and of how it hopes to sweep along the rest of Europe to defend a renewed multilateral agenda.
Elections in Italy are foreseen in the first quarter of 2018, most probably on 4 March. The last election created an unstable legislature, which saw four different centre-left governments. Recently, the Parliament passed a new electoral law (supported by Renzi’s Democratic Party and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia). But rather than bringing more stability, the new law is designed to reward coalitions while penalising solo riders – clearly intended to restrict the rise of the Five Star Movement.
This tells us much about the government’s hopes for 2018: win over the Eurosceptic populists and remain anchored to Europe and its Franco-German engine.
No doubt the next months will be characterized by intense political confrontation, where populist arguments will dominate. While in past elections the theme of Europe was not part of electoral campaigns, today it is, and not in the way Europhiles hoped for. Indeed, the last European barometer highlights how Italians have become Europe critics, where only few years ago they were overwhelmingly pro Europe. The Euro crisis, migration and security concerns are the major drivers of this U-turn.
The Democratic Party should try to ally with new political forces, such as “More Europe”, in order to overcome the current negativity and create a pro-European narrative echoing Macron’s “Europe qui protége”. Some also fear the interference of fake news and a potential involvement of Russia through direct or indirect support to the North League and the 5 Stars Movement, who allegedly have strong ties with the giant neighbour, and who are strongly Eurosceptic.
According to an IPSOS recent poll, migration is a major fear among Italians, second only to employment. Clearly, this is a subjective matter: the actual number of migrants reaching Italy does not justify such concerns. As in other countries, it is very likely that many Italians will vote out of fear instead of out of rational thinking, and certainly not out of hope. Worse, populist arguments have also penetrated traditional party agendas, while the right wing, once moderate and focused on a liberal program, today has become a much more aggressive far-right.
Hopes and fears are two parts of the same coin, with migration and Europe being very much interlinked. The European Union took too long to respond to Italy’s appeals for solidarity and relocation schemes have never been truly implemented. Instead of coming up with a common policy to manage migration, the EU has outsourced it: to Turkey for the Syrian refugees and to Libya – an almost-failed state – for Sub-Sahara Africans, with tragic consequences.
The future does not look bright: the ongoing attitude of the Visegrads, the clash between Tusk and the Commission, the US leaving the global compact on migration, all reduce the possibility of solving the problem. The challenge for winning the next election will be rebuilding the foundation of trust among citizens, and to do so parties will need to come up with a strong vision and concrete plans, both on Europe and on fear-creating issues such as migration. Failing to do so will mean their defeat.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.