In this series of articles, 2017 in Review, we look back at the year in each region of the world. Here Roy Manuell, Sonia Cuesta and Joe Barnes look at the last 12 months in Western Europe.
If 2016 was the year in which Europe saw “peak populism” then 2017 has generally been more stable in Western Europe. That’s not to say it’s been plain sailing, but there was no seismic event like the wave of refugees in 2015, or Britain’s decision to leave the European Union in 2016. The Eurozone economy, moreover, has seen an upturn and many in Brussels see the UK’s departure as galvanising further European integration. This review will focus on the differing fortunes of the four largest economies of Western Europe – Germany, France, Italy and Spain – to provide a picture of the region at large.
France – Roy Manuell
It has been an extraordinary year for Emmanuel Macron. His electoral achievement cannot be overstated, though many have tried. The former investment banker explosively tore himself away from the Socialist Party, the then governing party, to form his own, La République En Marche, and succeeded on using that platform to win both the presidency and an overwhelming majority in the Assemblée Nationale.
The powerful repudiation at the ballot box of Marine Le Pen’s Front National has led to its near-collapse with Le Pen clinging on to the leadership but very much at the fringes of her own party. The very fact she made the final run-off in the French presidential elections however is indicative of a country that has failed to address the wider issues such as the integration of migrants and rural disillusionment with Paris-centric elitism.
Dissatisfaction with the first six months of Macron’s presidency has seen the self-described ‘Jupiterian president’ suffer a worse approval rating than president Donald Trump, standing at a meagre 36% back in August. Many attribute this largely to a self-perpetuating propensity to project himself as the new king of France. In other words: his insatiable arrogance.
Nevertheless, Emmanuel Macron has achieved a lot since May. He has succeeded in passing an inevitably controversial reform of the French labour code, making it simpler, more flexible and easier to hire and fire workers. Critics however, view it as benefiting the rich to the detriment of workers, another contributing factor to his domestic approval rating.
Abroad, France is watched with jealousy by many whose 2017 was a year of turmoil. France has campaigned extensively for the environment under the mildly-provocative “make the planet great again”, offering grants for American climate specialists to work in France. Macron has battled Trump in a handshake war to the delight of social media, verbally attacked Putin more vociferously than any other European leader and played a major diplomatic role in the resolution of a crisis provoked by the resignation of Lebanese prime minister Saad al-Hariri.
With Britain leaving the EU, Merkel weaker than she’s been for a decade and the chaos of the Trump administration, Macron seems to be trying to shape France back into a major global force once again with himself at the helm. As a diplomatic, military and nuclear power, France is well placed already.
Italy – Roy Manuell
This year at last saw progress on a new electoral law allowing parties to form coalitions prior to an election – an attempt to streamline the process of forming a government, notorious in Italy for taking months to complete.
The largest beneficiary of this could be the imperishable octogenarian, Silvio Berlusconi. There were gains for the centre right in local elections in June and November which marked the return of his party, Forza Italia, as a political force. As the party is best placed to form coalitions, Berlusconi emerges as likely kingmaker next March when Italy holds its general election.
The populist Five Star Movement elected a new leader in September replacing anti-establishment, former-comedian Beppe Grillo with a sleek, young leader Luigi di Maio. Di Maio has a far softer stance on the EU and is willing to consider coalitions with other parties. He marks a shift towards electability for the party in time for March’s election. They currently lead in the polls as the governing Democratic Party underwhelm.
Elsewhere, local government made brave and popular moves to deter previously uncontrolled tourism in some of the world’s most attractive cities. Large cruise liners are now banned in Venice, selfie-sticks in Milan and a Florentine politician has even taken to hosing down church steps at midday in an attempt to prevent tourists from snacking.
Italy had a rather stable 2017 relative to recent years with flows of immigrants arriving falling sharply due to a controversial deal signed with Libyan authorities. For many however, its failure to reach the World Cup for the first time in over 50 years will be the hardest news to swallow.
Spain – Sonia Cuesta
Spain bids farewell to a year tainted by high-profile corruption scandals, the first Islamic State terrorist attack on Spanish ground, and its biggest political crisis in over four decades.
The country suffered a shock during the summer after a white van swerved onto Las Ramblas, a packed pedestrian street in Barcelona, and zigzagged for close to half a mile, killing 14 people. The Islamic State group was quick to claim responsibility for the attack, making this the first Islamic terrorist attack in Spain since 2004. Though the attack united Spain for the first time in months, this narrative would soon be forgotten as the political sphere was wracked by corruption scandals.
The ongoing decade-long investigation into Spain’s ruling People’s Party, PP, developed throughout 2017. Thirty-seven members of the PP were tried on charges of organized crime, falsifying accounts, influence-peddling and tax crimes in the “Gürtel” case. The case even embroiled Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who was accused of taking under-the-table payouts, claims which he has since denied.
These cases further stirred up public opinion against the current status quo and developed into the biggest political crisis in over four decades as the wealthy northern region of Catalonia held its own independence referendum on October 1, forcing a showdown between the central and regional governments. Madrid declared the referendum, which showed a large pro-independence majority, illegal.
During the day, the Spanish government sent masked riot police to raid polling stations and confiscate ballot boxes. Despite a turnout of just 43 percent, the government declared its independence from Spain, an act which became somewhat legitimised due to the violence displayed by the state during the referendum.
Rajoy responded to these events letting the judicial system deal with any challenge to the authority of the Spanish state. As a result of this policy, Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, went into exile in Brussels, and his vice president, Oriol Junqueras, was imprisoned after being accused of sedition and rebellion. Facing possible 30-year prison sentences, these legal actions have been widely condemned by the public.
He soon after called for regional elections hoping that a defeat of pro-independence parties in an election sanctioned by Spain’s central government would solve the Catalan conflict; he was proven wrong on December 21st when, against all odds, the three pro-independence parties together won with close to 48% of the votes, allowing them to keep the absolute majority in the Catalan Parliament. Even worse, Rajoy’s People’s Party nearly disappeared in Catalonia, winning only four seats out of 135. Their rivals on the Spanish right, Ciudadanos, won 36 seats — a result that would have been unthinkable three years ago.
So far, the political class is yet to put a definite end to the “Catalan question”; one is not even yet in sight. Dividing the population, this has become a chronic pain which will continue to be a central topic of discussion in 2018.
Germany and Austria – Joe Barnes
For a few years it had seemed that Henry Kissinger’s famous question “who do I call when I want to call Europe?” had an answer. Angela Merkel was master of all she surveyed, and whether it was bailing out Greece, the refugee crisis, or dealing with Russia, Germany would invariably speak for Europe.
Not any more. Merkel’s Christian Democratic alliance was cowed in September’s elections and the German political scene has fragmented to the extent that the country is still, four months later, in the process of forming a government.
Many viewed the elections as a referendum on Merkel’s decision to allow around one million migrants into the Germany in 2015. This dissatisfaction with high levels of migration, as well as the cosy coalition politics between Merkel’s party and the Social Democrats, led to a rise in votes for the Greens, the Liberal party and the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). The latter became the first far-right party to enter the Reichstag since the 1960s after gaining 12.8% of the vote.
Keen students of European politics may have experienced déjà vu in October, given that the exact same issues also dominated the election in neighbouring Austria. In that election, the rise of the Freedom Party (FPÖ), which won 27.4% of the vote, was the major talking point. They eventually went into coalition with the People’s Party, who won the election with 31.4% of the vote.
The AfD in Germany and FPÖ in Austria share many similarities. Both parties’ campaign posters railed against the Islamisierung (or Islamicisation) of their respective countries, spurred on by the migrant crisis; both are inherently Eurosceptic and have promised a range of tax cuts to their lower and middle income voter base.
Their electoral gains could be said to be emblematic of the Europe’s general situation. The European elite may be breathing a sigh of relief as their populaces have not yet elected a populist government, however, the fact that far-right parties have polled so high in successive elections lends them a sense of legitimacy that should worry policymakers.
Unless the underlying issues – depersonalised governance from Brussels, stagnating living standards and a seeming unwillingness to control national borders – are tackled, then political turbulence will never be far away. The sense of doom with which Europe entered 2017 may be abating but, in the provinces, rage is still simmering.