The crises are just around the corner, and this 2019 they have begun to plant the seeds of what we will see from 2020
2019 has not been a precisely easy year for the European Union, but neither has it been traumatic when compared to others of the last five years: it has not been 2014 or 2015, with its euro and migration crises, nor 2016 with Brexit on the table, nor 2017 and 2018 in which the anti-liberal trend of certain Member States was confirmed. However, the crisis is just around the corner, and this 2019 they have begun to plant the seeds of what we will see from 2020.
The course leaves a couple of ideas that can be used for the future of the European Union. Although it has been a year of transition, this has left the seed of Europe’s future political geography, and it also helps us to predict where the next crises may appear.
The Franco-German axis
It is not exclusive of 2019: when Emmanuel Macron arrived at the French presidency, enormous expectations were generated regarding his alliance with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who for more than a decade had only seen the political corpses of the different French presidents pass without getting to have a lot of connection with none.
For the European Union to progress, it is necessary that Paris and Berlin be coordinated, or that is the theory. It is true that throughout 2017, 2018 and 2019 there have been some meeting points, such as the minimum agreement regarding the budget instrument for the eurozone, but these have been more due to a French reduction of their ambitions with just as well as the German Government, because of the fact that the Franco-German axis has been really ambitious.
There is now a debate about whether relations between Paris and Berlin are at their lowest point. The truth is that it is not like that: they are where they have normally been found, what has happened is that the expectations that had been generated regarding the Franco-German axis have been punctured.
In addition, as we will see a little later, the complete coordination between Paris and Berlin is not always positive, and the experience of recent years shows us that it does not normally work in the direction of others interests, which is a greater economic and political integration, but in many occasions, there are patches and solutions of minimums that serve to close in false reforms that are crucial for the future of the Eurozone and Europe.
No connection with citizens
The election of Ursula von der Leyen by the leaders last July as their candidate to preside over the European Commission caught almost everyone offside. The German may become a great president of the Community Executive, but the message sent by the EU leadership when she was elected was very worrying.
The last weekend of May, the European elections were held with the greatest participation in history, and part of those elections was the ‘Spitzenkandidaten’ system by which the European Parliament refused to choose as president of the European Commission anybody who would not have participated in the elections leading one of the lists. It is an attempt, perhaps awkward and complex, by the European Chamber to generate a democratic link with the presidency of the Community Executive.
Macron started before the European elections with the intention of loading the system and asking for transnational lists in return. Although transnational lists are the long-term objective, many voices in Brussels have complained that the ‘Spitzenkandidat’ was a positive (and more democratic) system while reaching the level of common lists in all European countries.
The leaders finally dismantled the initiative that in 2014 placed Jean-Claude Juncker at the head of the European Commission and decided to choose an absolutely unknown person, from a low profile at European level, as was the German Defense Minister von der Leyen.
Regardless of whether Von der Leyen can end up being a good president, the European Chamber and European politicians were worn out in a long campaign in which they promised Europeans that their votes would count. Indeed, it was the MEPs chosen by the citizens who had to give the green light to the new European Commission, but the leaders decided to go over a system that made the European elections make more sense.
A Conference on the Future of Europe will begin in the coming months with the objective of democratizing the European Union. It will not be an easy job, and the most complicated thing will be to ensure that the exercise does not end up becoming a new face-lift and marketing operation and that it consists of a real package of measures aimed at improving accountability by The institutions
The UK exit is very serious
On the European side, Brexit has been lived with relative tranquillity. Throughout the negotiation the EU has had the winning hand, has been imposing its agenda and its priorities almost without opposition from the British side. It is something that could be expected because the United Kingdom was not prepared for that negotiation and the EU was, but it has also led to a caricature of the role of London within the club, drawing it only as a blocking member, which prevented progress.
The last months show two things: the first is that the presence of the United Kingdom is not necessary to block progress in the EU, Germany, the Netherlands or France take care of it depending on their interests; the second is that London was deeply necessary as a counterweight to the Franco-German axis.
On the first it is positive that Brexit has brought down the masks: there is no European consensus and here each Member State tries to protect its piece of land and interests with nails and teeth and only speaks of European integration when it clearly benefits. These are not precisely times of national sacrifices for European integration.
On the second point it is necessary for Spain to mature urgently. The Franco-German axis means what it means: that it is from France and Germany, and the rest is left out, with the option of taking a small part of the distribution of economic and political power.
A good example was the attempt to merge between Siemens (Germany) and Alstom (France), which would have generated a European railroad giant, but which was finally stopped by Margrethe Vestager, the competition commissioner. That operation would have altered competition in the European market.
The attacks of Paris and Berlin against Vestager arrived by land, sea and air. With the United Kingdom, which has always been a strong advocate of strict competition rules, the Franco-German axis now sets itself the objective of reforming these rules to facilitate the creation of European giants.
Nadia Calviño, Minister of the Spanish Economy, saw the risk in the operation and was in fact the first European political figure to show direct support to Vestager and held a meeting with the Competition Commissioner, who later also received the support of Antonio Costa, Prime Minister of Portugal.
It will be necessary that countries that until now were not very interested in these matters, such as Spain and Portugal, begin to have a more active role, and may have to weave alliances with countries with which they maintain deep differences in the reform of the Eurozone, such as the Netherlands and Denmark.
Don’t take NATO for granted
Macron’s already famous phrase that NATO is in “brain death” has blown up all the alarms in Europe and caused quickly from Brussels, from Berlin and other capitals to come out in defense of the Atlantic alliance.
The phrase of the president of France is not the most serious issue of the alliance, although it does reflect the need for the EU to take a more active role in NATO. Although this works at full speed and that in fact the activity has increased in Europe, the truth is that there are many doubts about its operation and its future at the political level.
An especially traumatic moment was Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw troops in Syria, and Turkey’s attitude in the north of the country. That set off all the alarms, even with fear that Ankara could invoke Article 5 of the Treaties if she was attacked in her incursion in the Syrian north, something that would have supposedly forced the rest of the partners to defend Turkey.
The tensions generated during this last year will accompany NATO over the next few years and most likely they will focus all the debates that are held on the future of the alliance.
France has a plan: which one?
It is clear that France has a plan, as Macron’s statements regarding NATO reflect, its central role in the overthrow of the Spitzenkandidat system and other attitudes. Nobody knows exactly what the French president’s roadmap is, but the truth is that nobody is considering an alternative.
Macron has shown that he has no problem in causing an earthquake in order to control the debate, as demonstrated by the fact that he vetoed the start of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, although it was a promise that the EU He had made the two Balkan countries in June 2019. But he is not putting an alternative proposal on the table either.
The political capital of Macron is running along the road, so time is running out: it arrived in 2017 with big plans, and so far the Frenchman has been unable to achieve any of them at European level and is suffering a lot to reform France doors inside. It seems that the French president has changed his strategy, and has become more aggressive. We do not know if this will serve you throughout 2020, but in this 2019 that ends, it has served more to piss off the rest of partners and institutions than to achieve real goals.