If you think that 2016 was a dynamic year politically-wise, wait until you see the new year unfolding. The changes that will take place in the US and Europe will gradually reshape the currents of opinion globally and hence the patterns of international relations. Geo-political realignments will affect world governance, trade, businesses, economies and societies. Trump will take over the Presidency of the strongest country in the world on 20th January, Brexit negotiations are due to start in March, while rising protectionist and nationalist forces will confront the establishments during the elections in France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.
This brief maps the likely political developments and their impact during 2017.
Donald Trump will take over the Presidency of the only global super-power on 20th January. The first 100 days of his term will have immediate reverberations all over the world and the European countries will be among the first to feel the shock waves. The Trump administration will redesign America to be more pragmatic and assertive internationally, more nationalistic, less social, more entrepreneurial and less bureaucratic. All these will stir societal reactions in Europe and elsewhere, most likely leading to further polarization of views.
The new US will question the role of the United Nations and other international organizations. This will lead more Europeans to do the same about the EU, in a year that will see key elections in France, Germany, the Netherlands and, most likely, Italy. Moreover, this year we will also witness the start of the Brexit negotiations. The pressure on the established Western liberal order will be massive.
The election of Trump has shown that coming from outside of the political system is not an obstacle to gaining the power, not even in the US anymore. This will encourage many others to try their luck and may lead to a current of opinion less favorable to career politicians and to a weakening of the bureaucratic apparatuses of other countries. Consequently, we are likely to witness a trend of refreshing of the political elites with people who have not held public offices before. Notably, some of these personalities will be promoted by emerging parties, as these new parties have a lack of cadre and hence a reasonable potential of absorbing new personalities (while in the established parties the newcomers have to compete with the “old party guard”).
Internationally, Trump will want to settle things with Russia as soon as possible, but which does not mean that we will see a great “friendship” between the two actors. The appointment of general James “Mad Dog” Mattis, former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, as Defense Secretary makes the point that defense on the European front will not be neglected. The message that Trump is sending to the Kremlin is that he wants to negotiate better relations and possibly a settlement of outstanding proxy conflicts (e.g. Ukraine, Syria), but from a position of strength on the ground. Historical precedents provide clues: Napoleon and Tzar Alexander were also mutual admirers, but that didn’t stop them from fighting against each other to the bone when their interests diverged.
The rationale of Trump’s actions becomes obvious if we look at the bigger picture. Trump is seeing China, and not Russia, as the main threat to America’s supremacy: China is almost ten times bigger than Russia in terms of population (and market) and it is growing much faster, challenging American supremacy in the South China Sea and the greater Far East, but also expanding its influence in Africa and Latin America. Trump’s strategy seems to be one of containment of China by charming Russia and thus giving Moscow more room for maneuver (and hence more power) in its own relations with Beijing.
However, this realignment will be difficult to digest by some of the Europeans. For example, conservative (e.g. Angela Merkel’s CDU, May’s Tories) and liberal forces in Western Europe will resist this move. Also, the Central and Eastern Europeans fear the consequences of this likely US-Russia agreement and will hope that this will not be a new Yalta-type resolution, which divided Europe in clear spheres of influence at the end of WWII. We should therefore expect substantial nervousness in the Eastern part of the EU and its neighborhood in anticipation of the orientations of the “new White House”.
The center-leftists (e.g. Steinmeier’s SPD) will be somewhat more flexible, given their better ties with Moscow. Also more flexible towards this move will be the likely new French executive, under Fillon, as well as the Italians (regardless of the composition of the government in Rome). The far left and the nationalists in most European countries, for their part, are ready to be “onboard” for this shift, both due to their strong ties with Russia and their anti-EU sentiment.
Elections in Europe: what changes will they bring?
In Europe, the Dutch will be the first to vote in a new Parliament, on 15 March, with Wilders’ far-right topping the opinion polls. While some find comfort in the thought that he will not be able to form a governing majority, this does not mean that his views will not be taken onboard in the future policy making. As seen last year, Wilders-led anti-establishment forces have been able to turn the population to reject the EU-Ukraine association agreement, which forced to Dutch government, and through it the European Council, to moderate its ambitions of bringing Ukraine closer to the EU. Any move towards further EU integration will have to take into account the situation in the Netherlands – one should not forget that the Dutch public (along with the French) also buried the Constitutional Treaty in a referendum a decade ago.
France will follow, with voters going to polls on 23 April for the first round of Presidential elections. While Marine le Pen is likely to make it into the second round, Fillon holds the upper hand. However, the above-mentioned logic applies: Marine le Pen and her followers do not have to win the elections to influence the future policy making. In fact, they are already doing so: the (intergovernmentalist) agenda with which Fillon has won the nomination of the Republicans for the French Presidency has been substantially influenced by the rising popularity of Front National.
Italians are likely to go to the polls over the year, amid prolonged squirming of their political elites. The possibility of holding a referendum for exiting the Eurozone is no longer a science-fiction scenario (after seeing Brexit and Trump victories nothing should be). The leading opposition force, 5-Star, is asking for the referendum and is leveraging the current banking crisis to make it happen. Other relevant parties, such as Forza Italia and Lega Nord are not big Euro fans either and already put forward ideas for either replacing the euro or introducing a second currency alongside it. In fact, only the governing Partito Democratico and other small centrist forces fully support the Euro, but their voters are far from being enough to secure a victory in the case of a referendum (as just seen in their defeat in the previous referendum held in December on the change of Italy’s Constitution).
Germans will vote in September, amid the societal crisis that have led the centrist CDU and SPD forces to “bleed” electorate to radical anti-EU reformists, such as the AfD. The terrorist attack in the Berlin Christmas Market complicated things further and many events can happen in the remaining time interval. Merkel’s CDU seems to prefer a new governing coalition, alongside the Greens and the Liberals, which would thus exclude the SPD. By putting SPD in opposition, CDU would solve two issues: gain more room for maneuvering in the government and avoid further fragmentation and instability of the German political spectrum. However, the reality of the elections’ outcome may terminate their plans. Either way, a new government configuration will take shape, which might change fundamentally Berlin’s policy agenda (and with it, that of the EU).
Finally, we should not underestimate the importance of the political developments in the UK, where (the month of) May may not be good for (PM) May. The surprising victory of the Liberal Democrats in the by-elections of a “Remain” constituency (previously held by the Conservatives) was based on their anti-Brexit platform. The British will go again to polls to vote in their new local authorities in May. The outcome of these elections will show whether the voters approve the shift to the right of the Conservative Party on migration, the strong anti-Brexit rhetoric of the Liberals and the Scottish Nationalists, or the moderate position on Brexit advocated by Jeremy Corbyn. Some players will be strengthened to the detriment of others and this will have a direct impact on the tone of the negotiations between the European Union and the British government.
All of these mean that 2017 will be a year of political fighting, which also means a year of less (visionary) action: politicians will be more busy with undermining their opponents and with improving their own image internally (often through social and protectionist measures and nationalist rhetoric), while taking minimum risks in terms of promoting liberalisation of trade, business-friendly measures or supra-national governance. At the end of this year, depending on the outcomes of all of these developments, we might witness a very different institutional order in Europe and in international relations.
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