Europe enters a pivotal year

The Roman god Janus, the god of transitions and doorways who stood at the turning of the year, was traditionally depicted with two faces, one to look back and one to look forward.  At this time of year there is a small industry in the press and media of people echoing him, as commentators reflect on the year that is ending and make their predictions for the year that is to come.

For some it is also a time to recall their predictions made 12 months before, and either parade their foresightedness or explain away their misses.  The enthusiasm for doing this usually depends on how accurate those predictions turned out to be, and the exercise is often more one of selective memory than anything else – it is the rare commentator who does not make enough predictions to ensure that at least one comes true and can be referred back to with pride!

But every now and then, the media have to confess to a more than usually widespread failure.  And 2016 was one such year.  Regardless of how many of the predictions various writers made in December 2015 came true or not, they all read now a little like the glowing preview of the maiden voyage of the Titanic whose main point was that “the catering will be superb”.

Yes it was.  But there was a little missing “minor detail” from the article, since as we now know, half way across the Atlantic the ship hit an iceberg and sank!  And in similar vein, the missing “minor detail” in most commentators’ predictions made a year ago was the eruption of political populism.  Of the two political events for which 2016 will be known in the history books – the result of the Brexit referendum and Trump’s election as US president – the first was considered by most of the prediction-writers a year ago to be very unlikely and the second was hardly considered at all.  Not a single respectable mainstream commentator predicted both correctly[1].

Few writers have made the same mistake of overlooking populism this year, and the predictions which have filled our year-end papers have concentrated as seldom before on politics, almost to the exclusion of all else.  The economic outlook, the fate of the migrants in Europe, the prospects for peace in the Middle East, even the future of international action on climate change are all seen as beholden to politics. It may have been true for Bill Clinton that “It’s the economy, stupid”, but for 2017, most people expect that it will be political developments that drive events, and the economists and others who will for a change be dancing to somebody else’s tunes.

In Europe, the political scene is particularly volatile and difficult to predict.  The continent is entering a 12-month period which will see national elections in the Netherlands, France (for both president and parliament), Germany, probably Italy, possibly Spain and maybe even the UK, plus the UK invoking Article 50 and the start of the country’s Brexit negotiations.  And all of this is in addition to the still unsolved challenges of the Eurozone economy and the Italian banking system, the pressures from mass migrations and terrorism, not to mention the wider backdrop of Trump’s inauguration and opening salvos as US president, and Russia’s ongoing adventurism and Turkey’s growing strength (and Erdoğan’s growing authoritarianism) in the Middle East.

This is a cocktail of considerable uncertainty and political risk.  And much will depend on whether the tide of populism that triumphed in the UK and US in 2016 continues to flow.

It is human nature to predict that things will continue as they are – it is always more difficult to predict turning points – and right at the moment, having failed to foresee the populist tide at all 12 months ago, most commentators seem to have changed their mind completely and now cannot see the tide ebbing.  There is a plethora of warnings about how Marine le Pen might win the French election, how Geert Wilders in the Netherlands will lead his anti-immigrant Freedom Party to be the largest party in the new Dutch parliament, even how German chancellor Angela Merkel will face a major challenge from the populist right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party.

But behind the attention-seeking statements and the “please read me” headlines – which even respected commentators sometimes resort to – it is important not to lose sight of three things.

First, some elections matter more than others, and in Europe (with all due respect to other countries), the French and German elections stand head and shoulders above all the rest in importance for the EU as a whole.

Second, the chance of a populist upset in either France or Germany, while not zero, is not high.  France’s two-round electoral system allows the establishment and the electorate to rally round the non-populist candidate in the second round, and although le Pen’s Front National is regularly making it to the second round of elections at both regional and national level, it has yet to triumph overall in any election of real importance.  And Germany’s tradition of coalition government, even grand coalitions between left and right (such as the current administration) looks strong enough to keep the AfD out of any position of power.

And third, it is unlikely that governing parties in Europe will be caught quite so much by surprise as David Cameron was by the lack of respect for both the truth and those in positions of authority from his Vote Leave opponents in Britain[2], or the US Democrats were by Russian interference in their election 2 months ago.  Indeed, the German authorities have already increased their cyber-security and are warning of Russian attempts to influence their autumn poll, and others will also be far more forewarned about Russian meddling too.

So while the EU faces a difficult year – and if either the French or German elections are lost to the populists it will become a very difficult year indeed – there are good grounds for believing that the centre will after all hold, and that the oft predicted end of the Euro, or Schengen, or even the EU itself will once again fail to happen.

Even so, the risks are there.  And in this pivotal year, they will be uppermost in the minds of all politicians facing elections.  And this bodes ill for one set of politicians in particular:  the British.

When Mrs May finally delivers her set of demands to the EU, she is likely to find many of her fellow leaders heavily pre-occupied, either with fighting elections or with forming a government in their aftermath.  And while she will want to negotiate the UK’s exit from the EU as a matter of urgency in order to be able to start the process of building a different national future outside the Union, it will rank a very long way down other countries’ list of political priorities.

Oscar Wilde once said “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about”. Britain may be about to find out that there is one thing worse than receiving a hostile reaction to its Article 50 proposals – until at least the late autumn (ie, until the new German government is in place) it may struggle to get much by way of any reaction at all.


[1]              Or if they did, they have been quite extraordinarily reticent about saying so!

[2]              Michael Gove’s statement in the last weeks of the UK referendum campaign that “the people are tired of experts” is the signature statement of the new politics favoured by the populists, and a candidate for the most important political statement of 2016.  The challenge for the establishment elite is that once you denigrate those who know what they are talking about, you open the gates to sentiments gliding from “everyone is entitled to their own opinion” (which is acceptable in a democracy) to “everyone’s opinion deserves respect” (which is more debatable) to “all opinions are equally valid” (which is arguably not true) to “you can never tell anyone that they are wrong” (which is dangerous, because in such an atmosphere it is very difficult to conduct rational debate at all).  At which point you are into post-truth, post-fact politics – which is not democratic politics based on rational argument but bully politics based on intimidation, lies and the like.