At the end of each year I tried to reflect on the most important events that took place in Europe (see my comments for 2011 and 2012). Aside from the political look down in DC, tensions in South-East Asia, instabilities in the Middle East and North Africa, among many other stories, seven stories caught my attention as important in the continuous development of the Union.
1. European Comeback: Catherine Ashton, the High Representative
Since her appointment at the head of European foreign policy, Cathy Ashton has been under fire by almost everybody – including myself –. Yes, she is not the savvy foreign policy leader – and was even called the ‘Accidental Diplomat’ – that Solana was or even the American diplomats running the show like Hillary Clinton or even John Kerry. Until 2013, HR Ashton had some sort of rocky ride with the failure to act accordingly after the earthquake in Haiti, the failure to lead the CSDP in Libya, Mali, Syria, and even Central African Republic. But, she compensated her weakness with a very acute bureaucratic sense. The design and development of the EEAS is one of her principal accomplishments and it is here to stay.
Nevertheless, 2013 was a turning point in HR Ashton’s tenure and this for three reasons: Morsi, Iran, and the Kosovo-Serbian deal. First, since being ousted from power, President Morsi has been detained by the Egyptian army. HR Ashton has been the only foreign policy leader to meet directly with him during the summer. This was certainly a diplomatic coup for Europe. Second, the nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran signed in November 2013 was mediated by Ashton. Following the nuclear deal, Secretary Kerry described her as “a persistent and dogged negotiator.” The third coup was the signature of the diplomatic deal between Kosovo and Serbia during spring. HR Ashton led the way to an important breakthrough in the region. Such deal was a real success for European foreign policy and the stabilization of the Balkans.
At the opposite of traditional western foreign policy leaders like Fabius of France, Kerry of the US among others, HR Ashton dislikes the press. Her reticence to interact with the press has contributed in shaping an aura of absence for the EU, when it has been the opposite. The nuclear deal with Iran and the diplomatic one between Serbia and Kosovo are splendid accomplishment for the credibility of EU foreign policy and Ashton.
2. Surprising international presence: President Hollande of France
In a matter of two years French President Hollande has managed to become the least popular President of the 5th Republic. His domestic approach – fiscal and economic policies – to solving the crisis and trying to bring compétitivité of French economy back has not been very successful thus far. The unemployment level remains high and the ultra-wealthy is paying extremely high taxes. Where Hollande is a serious contradiction is where his strength lays. President
Hollande was elected for his domestic agenda, not for its international agenda, which was almost inexistent. Surprisingly President Hollande has had the most success on the international stage continuing directly where his predecessor, Mr. Sarkozy, had left off – minus the arrogance.
In 2013, President Hollande demonstrated to the world that France was serious in defending its interests and advancing its influence where it matters. France deployed soldiers in Mali and Central African Republic and was waiting on the US to launch military strikes against the Syrian regime of Al-Assad. France even blocked the original nuclear deal at the 11th hour. American conservatives applauded such move. No other European country or the US has had such aggressive foreign policy in 2013. So yes, France may be the sick man of Europe, but it is certainly not fading away on the international arena.
3. European Continuity: Angela Merkel
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was reelected for a third term at the helm of Germany and ultimately Europe. She has
been the cornerstone of Europe since the 2007 financial crisis. Germany has been the strongman of Europe and has remained so. Chancellor Merkel is certainly unpopular outside of her borders, especially in the PIGS countries – Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain. Even though she is receiving high trust by her citizens, Germany has been a reluctant international player. If Merkel has mastered the European scene, she has certainly failed on the international stage when it comes to solving emerging and pressing crises. Germany refused to be part of the NATO mission in Libya in 2011, did not contribute to the Malian endeavor, disappeared from the stage in dealing with Syria and Egypt and is not present regarding Iran. In her third term, it would be a surprise to see her shift the direction of her agenda.
4. Never say never: Vladimir Putin against the West
One of the main successes in global affairs in 2013 was Russian President Vladimir Putin. Three events demonstrated his victory over the West: first, saving Al-Assad; second, offering asylum to Edward Snowden; third, getting a deal done between Ukraine and Russia.
1. Saving the Al-Assad regime from a Western military strike was quite a diplomatic coup. After the rejection by British parliament to grant Prime Minister Cameron the authorization to go to war against Syria, Putin understood that he may have a shot at saving Al-Assad. He negotiated a diplomatic agreement with President Obama in order to put the Syrian chemical arsenal under international control. Al-Assad is safe and well alive. The Euro-Atlantic community washed off its hand from what could have been a very tricky situation thanks to Putin.
2. Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor, leaked one of the largest numbers of confidential documents during the
summer. These leaks gave proof to world citizens and leaders of the extent of the spying undertaken by the US since the turn of the century. After allegations that the US had tapped onto Merkel’s cellphone a massive transatlantic fraught has since started. The US has been in crisis mode since then trying to re-build confidence with its allies. The Obama administration is trying to bring back Snowden to the US so he can face justice, but Putin offered Snowden asylum in Russia.
3. In November 2013, the EU and Ukraine were finalizing a trade agreement deal until Putin hijacked the negotiation. Putin wants Ukraine to join a Russian-led custom union instead of signing the EU pact. In mid-December, the EU suspended the trade negotiations with Ukraine. The reason for such sudden move is that Ukrainian leader, Viktor Yanukovych, argued the EU pact would affect many companies dependent on trade with Russia. Since then Ukraine has been overtaken by civil society rejecting the decision of the Ukraine government. A large segment of European press is calling for the inclusion of Ukraine – in the long-term – within the EU. Once again Putin has forced EU Member States to look closely at their commitment to accept Ukraine as one of them. It is yet unclear if the EU and its Member States are fully-committed to including Ukraine as one of them.
Overall 2013 was a very good year for Putin. But what about Russia?
5. Going Rogue? British Prime Minister David Cameron
British Prime Minister David Cameron has certainly succeeded in remaining relevant and advancing ‘his vision’ of
British interests. Since being in power, Prime Minister Cameron has certainly not disappointed his conservative base with his anti-European narratives. Mr. Cameron has been working in trying to bring back most of British ‘lost’ powers to London.
Right before Christmas, Cameron reacted to the implementation on January 1st, 2014 of a law allowing citizens of Europe’s poorest members, Bulgaria and Romania, to move freely across the Union. British politicians have raised the red flag fearing the invasion of Bulgarians and Romanians seeking for a better life in Britain. Such fear is not new if one recalls the invasion of ‘polish plumber’ onto Britain several years ago. Cameron along with his party members are complaining about the freedom of movement within the Union as well as changing domestic laws in order to make it harder for immigrants to claim benefits.
Cameron is progressively dismissing all the great accomplishment of the Union – for what already?
6. Return of the extremes? Western extreme right-wing parties
2013 was the year of the European extremes.
With the latest news that the neo-fascist French party, Front National, and its Dutch counterpart, Freedom Party, have joined forces as an anti-EU group for the next 2014 May’s European elections. Marine Le Pen of the Front National and Geert Wilders of the Freedom party are seeking for a high result in the 2014 elections. Both politicians have in recent time rose within the trouble political, social, economic climates in their respective countries. Are national extreme-right wing parties the most European parties in Europe? Do these parties represent the new European identity?
“Our old European nations are forced to ask the authorization of Brussels in all circumstance, forced to submit their
budget to the headmistress” argued Le Pen. “The people of Europe are standing up against the EU. They want to defend their identity.” But what identity is she talking about? A Europe purely white, Christian; promoting and solely defending national interest; based on a 19th century industrial model with a statist approach to economic policy; sterile to any types of international forces?
However, her alliance with her Dutch counterpart directly demonstrates that national politics have become European politics. Both parties do not share similar visions and policies. For instance, one of their common purposes is their hostility towards the EU and immigration. Then the Freedom party tends to be pro-gay, pro-women’s rights and Israel; whereas the Front National is homophobic, anti-Semitist.
The rise of the extremes in Europe has been a progressive factor since the 1990s. In the first decade of the 21st century, these extremes have seen some types of boost in its bases, with older baby-boomers, and its most important allies, such as the 2008 financial crisis. The financial crisis has offered the perfect platform for these extremes. Mainstream right and left wing parties have been unable – at the exception of Germany – to rule and govern under the pressure of the international forces of the market, international organizations – like the IMF –, rating agencies and so on. Globalization has become the main enemy to national health. In addition, unemployment has risen and the perception of anything remotely not French, Dutch, Italian or even European has served as a justification to economic and social problems.
Greece is one of the most obvious examples. After decades of decadence by mainstream parties and citizens under the aura of the European Union, the music abruptly ended causing serious national traumatism and sending the country into economic, social, financial and political turmoil. Consequently, extreme parties like the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn are becoming popular and attractive. However, the two extreme right parties have ruled out joining forces with Greek Golden Dawn and Hungarian Jobbik.
The resurgence of extreme far rights parties is now demonstrating the rise of a new European identity: anti-EU, anti-immigration – internal (just look at Britain) and external (just look at Italy, Greece and France) –, anti-elitism, and anti-globalization.
7. Best European movie of the Year: The Great Beauty
A little art has never killed anyone. Well Paolo Sorrentino’s Great Beauty is a clear masterpiece directly aligned with Fellini. Some scenes or even themes can be linked to the European integration process. At first, it was a matter of a simple idea in order to make war unthinkable. Since then, the European integration process has just been, especially since the 1990s, a matter of blah, blah, blah, – as would the main character Jep Gambardella understand by the end of the movie the meaning of life -. The Great Beauty is not about the European Union, but it symbolizes the cultural and cinematic beauty and dynamism coming from Europe. A must see.