The absence of a common vision among EU member states will continue to undermine the Union.
MIGRATION: NO LET UP
Migration from conflict zones towards the European Union reached record levels in 2015, with more than a million migrants having crossed by land and sea from countries experiencing conflict and crisis. While the central Mediterranean route originating in Libya was previously the primary route to Europe, it was the eastern Mediterranean that saw the largest numbers of migrants in 2015, most of whom originated from the Middle East and North African region.
With conditions giving rise to instability likely to prevail throughout the MENA region in 2016, the situation will not improve markedly in the coming year. The root causes of migration – conflict in Syria, instability in Afghanistan and political oppression in parts of sub-Saharan Africa – will continue to push people to seek out a better life in Europe.
The 2015 Summit on Migration held between the European Union and a number of African nations had proposed several points, such as stemming the flow of migration, easing the return of migrants and financial aid to African states. However, with the deadline to put in place these measures set at the end of 2016, there is little hope that migration to Europe will slow in any conceivable way in the coming year.
A considerable number of migrants will continue to launch from Libyan shores, with a number of smuggling networks prevalent in several areas of the country. While ISIS is not necessarily strapped for cash in 2016, it may seek to tap into the market of smuggling migrants, or harassing smugglers, to fund low-level operations.
150,000 migrants had attempted to cross into Europe through the central Mediterranean route in 2015; it is likely that 2016 will see similar, if not larger numbers. With Turkey having reached an agreement with the European Union in November 2015 to curtail migration through its borders, it will become more difficult for migrants to follow the eastern Mediterranean route in the coming year. A conservative estimate of migrants using the southern Mediterranean route would see last year’s number increasing by about one-third, meaning that upwards of 200,000 people could arrive on the shores of central Mediterranean countries this year. The majority of these migrants will look to depart from the shores of Libya, putting further strain on both southern European nations and the varied Libyan authorities while strengthening and enriching people-smuggling rings in Libya.
DISCONTENT IN GREECE
Greece’s problems are likely to continue in 2016, although its issues will take on a different hue.
Domestically, Greece’s political class will find itself under continued pressure from ordinary Greeks, who had thought that electing Syriza would strengthen Athens’ negotiating position with Brussels – it did not. With 2015 having been characterised by debates on economic and financial issues – as well as political turmoil over negotiations with Brussels – Athens will face increasing pressure from its citizens in the coming year as the reality of what was agreed in 2015 begins to set in. As a result, expect PM Alexis Tsipras to try to ingratiate himself with his citizens by continuing to chide his European counterparts in Brussels.
However, behind closed doors, Tsipras’ government will seek to repair relations with his European counterparts in an attempt to earn some concessions in the medium-term.
The economic and financial problems faced by Greece will continue to have repercussions on the European project. Large southern European countries such as Greece, Italy, and Spain will face continued economic hardship in 2016; their inability to use monetary policy to devalue their currency, and therefore make their exports more competitive, will exacerbate this.
The manner in which Brussels handled the Greek crisis was followed closely in Southern Europe, particularly in Italy, which has a debt-to-GDP ratio of 132%. This will remain a concern for officials in Brussels in the coming year; a crisis of the Greek kind in Italy would fundamentally threaten the entire Eurozone.
Rome and Athens are likely to continue to push their respective cases in Brussels throughout 2016 while also fostering a closer working relationship even if their personal styles differ.
UKRAINE: A FROZEN CONFLICT
The war in Ukraine has come to represent the greatest geopolitical challenge that the European Union has ever faced. These challenges are numerous, and will not be resolved in 2016.
The European Union has sought to bring Ukraine into its orbit as part of its expansion, however, this has run into stiff resistance from Russia, which views Ukraine as a key element within its sphere of influence. The EU has no such attachment to Ukraine – it is not central to the future of the European project. Nevertheless, Brussels will find it difficult to balance its ambitious ideals of encouraging states to join the Union with the geopolitical reality that Moscow is prepared to bring its political, economic and military influence to bear on both Kiev and Brussels. The EU will continue to encourage Ukraine to make the necessary reforms to join the Union, but Kiev will find it difficult to focus on implementing reforms while its attention continues to be drawn towards the low-intensity conflict in south-east Ukraine.
The conflict in Ukraine will continue throughout 2016 although its intensity is unlikely to be as high as in 2015. Further diplomatic negotiations between the European Union and Russia can be expected, in order to help bolster the second Minsk agreement signed at the beginning of 2015, although these negotiations are unlikely to bear any real fruit.
Finally, there are a number of European Union members, not least Germany, facing powerful opposition from pro-business and pro-Russian lobbies within their capitals. These interests, along with the rise of far left and far right throughout the Continent, will complicate the EU’s efforts to maintain a unified front and retain Ukraine-related sanctions against Russia. Expect intensive talks between Russia and the EU, followed by further talks between the EU and Ukraine in mid-2016. Moscow is likely to start a charm offensive aimed at lifting the sanctions imposed on it, which are due to expire on July 31.
However, unless there is a significant improvement in the situation on the ground in Ukraine in early 2016 (which is unlikely) sanctions against Russia are likely to be extended through to the end of 2016. Expect posturing from the Kremlin and pro-Russian interests in Europe in the second quarter of the year.
THE FUTURE OF THE EUROPEAN UNION
Along with security problems on its periphery, and economic issues in the south, Europe has also seen the rise of Eurosceptic and nationalist parties, which will continue to make their mark on the social and political scene in 2016. Countries such as the UK, Poland and Hungary already have governments that are seeking to distance themselves from Brussels. With Germany and France – the two core Continental powers – holding elections in 2017, the next twelve months will be crucial.
The rise of nationalist parties in Europe will cause considerable upheaval although the main political threats to the European project primarily stem from two areas: the UK referendum on EU membership, and the rise of Eurosceptic parties, particularly in France. These developments are underpinned by a deep sense of disagreement over the future direction of the European project.
The UK’s referendum on EU membership promises to cause some discomfort in Brussels, although if British PM David Cameron manages to extract key concessions on social benefits and the free movement of people in the Union, it is likely that he will advocate for the UK’s continued membership. Brussels will look to compromise, but will continue to rule out the possibility of any EU treaty changes to do so. The line will be found somewhere in the middle, likely ensuring the UK’s continued membership by early 2017.
France and Germany both find their governing parties under siege from nationalist forces, although President Hollande’s deep unpopularity with many French voters puts him in a substantially weaker position than German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Marine Le Pen’s right-wing National Front will continue to make political inroads, capitalising on a weak French economy and the influx of migrants. Chancellor Merkel will continue to hold off challenges from within her party, the Christian Democratic Union, but will find it increasingly difficult to appease her detractors, both from within and from outside of her party throughout the coming year.
One area that will be critical for the future direction of the European Union is whether France’s desire for closer continental economic integration outweighs Germany’s push for slower convergence of economic and financial rules. The relationship between Paris and Berlin may start to show some strain if a common vision for the Eurozone is not found. Should, against all odds, the UK leave the EU, Germany and France will find that an important interlocutor has been lost, which will, in turn, add further strain to their relationship and the future of the Eurozone.