Commentary and Analysis by Danaë LAZARI
From the beginning to the end, 2015 was a tumultuous year, characterised by new and continuing crises in political, economic, and moral terms. The worsening of the war in Syria led to the worst refugee crisis seen in Europe since the Second World War, whilst anti-establishment feeling peaked among international citizens. The Greek Eurozone crisis raged on, resulting in the real possibility of Grexit, whilst the UK prepared for an EU referendum to take place in the next two years.
At the same time, historic international deals were made, including the Iran nuclear deal framework, the normalisation of ties of the US and Cuba, and COP21. Significant progress in social equality was made by the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Ireland and the US. For our first week back in 2016, Young Europeans has picked out ten events from 2015 that we feel are particularly relevant both in terms of historical impact, but also whose knock-on effects will be felt into 2016 and beyond.
- 1) The British General Election and consequent EU Referendum
The result of the UK General Election seemed to shock even those who had voted in it, when the Conservatives won by a majority for the first time since 1992. This event is made the more notable for the campaign promises made by David Cameron, including a referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU. Now set to take place before the end of 2017, the result of the referendum could have serious repercussions both in the EU and UK landscapes.
What does this mean for 2016? Undoubtedly, developments towards the EU referendum will remain in the headlines throughout 2016, and Cameron’s progress towards securing his negotiation objectives in the EU will be scrutinised. If these objectives are obtained, we could see a referendum take place later this year – though the difficulties involved with treaty re-negotiations even at a peaceful time would make this a hard task to achieve. .
- 2) The legalisation of same-sex marriage in Ireland and the US
2015 brought some key developments in social justice and equality, when Ireland became the first country in the world to overwhelmingly legalise same-sex marriage by popular vote in May. A nation viewed by many as one in which the Catholic Church still exercises an inordinate amount of power added a new article to its constitution to declare marriage as a union between two people regardless of their sex. A month later, the US Supreme court declared marriage a constitutional right that should be extended to same-sex couples, overriding many states’ existing same-sex marriage bans.
What does this mean for 2016? We can expect the question of same-sex marriage to continue being raised in those countries which still do not allow it, for example in Australia and Northern Ireland, whose populations reacted strongly in favour of following in the footsteps of those countries that do. At the same time, many Irish people hope to use the landmark decision as a sign of how far the nation has come from its Catholic past, and attempt to follow suit with referendums on issues such as abortion (although it is highly unlikely that this will happen in 2016).
- 3) Grexit averted for another few months
2015 was the hottest year ever recorded, and as temperatures heated up across Europe in the summer months, so did the temperaments of officials involved in negotiating a new bailout deal for Greece. After missing a debt repayment to the IMF (whose completion was required for the paying out of a new tranche of bailout money) the question of a ‘Grexit’ was, for several weeks, very close to becoming a reality. A snap referendum called by Greek Premier Alexis Tsipras shocked officials when Greeks voted no to a bailout offer that had expired by the time the referendum took place. In the end, Greece agreed to a new bailout deal (a harsher one, incidentally, than the one they had rejected), and we were able to avoid remembering 2015 as the year the EU lost its first Member State. In reaction to the new deal, Tsipras resigned, precipitating the second Greek general election in 2015, but was voted back into government in September (it is worth bearing in mind that voter turnout for those elections were at a record low).
What does this mean for 2016? In September, economists predicted that the only figure set to rise in Greece in 2016 would be unemployment, and the harsh terms set in place by the new bailout deal will continue to put Greece under duress as Tsipras tries to change many years of questionable political practices by those before him. It is hard to predict whether 2016 will be the first election-free year for Greece since 2010 – on the one hand, it certainly will not be easy for Greece to implement these changes, but on the other, the record low voter turnout recorded in September, as well as the fact that voting in Syriza was for many the last option, may indicate that most Greeks now just want to get on with it.
- 4) The Refugee crisis reaches historic proportions
The death of 800 migrants in the Mediterranean sea in April shocked and shamed the EU into proposing a 10-point action plan to prevent future similar disasters. However, as the situation in Syria deteriorated, the movement of asylum-seekers into Europe reached levels of human migration not seen since the Second World War, and became known as a veritable refugee crisis. When the picture of 3-year old Aylan Kurdi, a toddler who did not survive the attempt to cross into Europe, was published in the media, it shocked the public and governments into movement, and measures were put in place to allow for the management of these asylum-seekers and refugees into the EU. In particular, Angela Merkel’s handling of the crisis was lauded as exemplary, and she was named the FT’s Person of the Year in part for this. States chose different ways to manage the influx, with some countries such as Slovenia and Hungary opting to erect fences along their borders.
What does this mean for 2016? The refugee crisis will not be solved until those seeking asylum do not have a reason to do so anymore. In 2016 we would hope to see better measures in place to help and manage refugees, but crucially, we would hope that the heart of the problem – the war in Syria – would be addressed with a view to ending it.
- 5) Anti-establishment feeling rises further
The anti-establishment feeling evident in the past few years came into itself even in the first few weeks of 2015, with Syriza’s (first) victory in Greece in January, and was to remain a strong under-current to political developments throughout the year. Syriza’s victory was lauded by supporters of Podemos in Spain, and the hashtag #thisisacoup began trending across Europe in the tumultuous summer weeks of Greek bailout negotiations (referring to the bailout deal seemingly being ‘imposed’ on Greece by creditor nations and the EU institutions). The trend made itself most obviously felt on two points – with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership win in September, and with Donald Trump’s performance as the US presidential campaign came into its own.
What does this mean for 2016? The rise of anti-establishment feeling is a trend that has been anticipated by policy forecasters, who expect it to increase in the years to come as citizens become more politically aware and have access to tools such as social media. We can expect, therefore, that this trend will continue to make itself known throughout 2016. The real test will come on election day as voters decide whether or not to solidify their ideals with their ballot. There are many such days to come in 2016, as US citizens will finally cast their votes for their next president; British citizens (may) vote on their future membership of the EU; and French politicians begin preparing campaigns for their general election in 2017.
- 6) US normalises ties with Cuba
In July, the US and Cuba agreed to restore diplomatic relations and to reopen embassies in their respective countries – an agreement which marked the end of over 50 years of hostility between the two nations. President Obama expressed his desire that the embargo on trade and travel be lifted, but this has not yet come to pass given that it requires congressional action. Nevertheless, the agreement was a historic moment in US-Cuban relations.
What does this mean for 2016? Cuba is likely to play a role in the US presidential elections, as candidates place themselves on either end of the support spectrum. The embargo question will be an interesting one to follow this year, however, as Cuban officials have stated that relations will not be truly normalised until the embargo is lifted.
- 7) Iran’s Nuclear Deal
History was made in June as a nuclear deal was agreed on between the Islamic Republic of Iran, the permanent members of the UN Security Council (US, UK, Russia, France, China and Germany), and the EU. A goal of President Obama’s since he came to office in 2008, the deal aims to prevent Iran’s ability to create nuclear weapons, and went a long way towards normalising relations between both countries. A complex deal that has been the subject of a lot of debate for and against, you can read more about it in detail here.
What does this mean for 2016? Much like the normalisation of US-Cuba ties, the Iran deal is likely to play some part in the US presidential elections. We expect it to be in the news as its developments unfold, perhaps to be revisited in more detail once the future US president is announced in late 2016.
- 8) Rise of IS and terrorist attacks
IS remained in the headlines throughout the year as developments in Syria worsened. Terrorist attacks linked or inspired by IS made headlines from January, with the attack on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo which killed 17, through to June, when 38 people were shot dead in an attack on a Tunisian beach, and November, when 130 people lost their lives in Paris in what was the deadliest terrorist attack in the EU since the Madrid bombings in 2004. Many of these attacks were not directly or definitely linked to IS, rather being undertaken by fanatics, but the group retrospectively took credit for them. Even through to the last hours of 2015, major cities around the world took extra safety precautions in light of these attacks, with Paris calling off its annual fireworks display on the Champs-Elysées, and London increasing the number of armed officers on its streets.
What does this mean for 2016? 2015 solidified our understanding of IS as a unique enemy, and we can expect them to remain a fixture in 2016, particularly as Western governments voted for increased airstrikes in response to the Paris attacks. The use of article 42.7 of the Treaty of the European Union by France for the first time ever made political history, but its consequences on the international political landscape will not be evident for a while. Meanwhile it is likely that IS, or Daesh as they have begun to be called, may move towards more centrally planned attacks as a general strategy.
- 9) COP 21
The UN ended 2015 with a bang, concluding its 21st annual climate conference with an agreement to aim to curb global warming to 2 °C by 2100 (from a current projected 4°C). The agreement has not been without controversy, having been lauded as historic by some; denounced as a fraud by others. Nevertheless it is a key step towards a more environmentally conscious future, and a crucial one in attempting to temper the real damage we have already caused to the environment, and preventing future irreversible damage.
What does this mean for 2016? The deal was only agreed on in December 2015, so much of its development and implementation will be seen in 2016 and in the years to come. We are looking forward to monitoring these changes and reporting on them as they come to pass.
- 10) Russia’s increased belligerence
Russia continued to flex its muscles as a self-defined superpower throughout the year, culminating in its involvement in the Syrian war. Announcing air strikes against opponents of the Syrian government (specifically IS) late in 2015, Russia began to conduct 8 air strikes per day (to the US’ average of 6), building up to as many as 94 in one day. However, Russian involvement has been criticised for being inconsistent with their targets, in fact bombing areas which are not under IS control. Notably, Russia’s renewed presence in the Mediterranean posed a threat to NATO’s operations, as Russian missiles in the area meant that for the first time, NATO would not have full control of the skies. Nevertheless we witnessed a certain thawing in relations between Russia and European countries in the latter half of 2015 – it is notable that in response to the Paris attacks in November, French Prime Minister Francois Hollande invoked an EU article rather than ask for NATO’s aid – partially because of its hostile relationship with Russia.
What does this mean for 2016? Russia seems to be trying to establish itself as a superpower whilst isolating itself from existing ones. This will be problematic if a more international cooperative approach to the Syrian war emerges among other countries in 2016. Parliamentary elections at home and a worsening economy will also influence its current involvement in one way or another, depending in part on how Russian media portrays the strategy, and how other countries respond to it (e.g. more sanctions).
Regardless of whether the expected developments outlined above come to pass or not, Young Europeans Network looks forward to continue bringing you political analysis in the year ahead.