ASK any European policymaker and she/he will tell you it’s been a difficult year, a rollercoaster ride of peaks and troughs, moments of elation followed by periods of grim introspection.
And yet as 2017 draws to an end, the European Union appears to have a spring in its step. Part of it is mere relief at having made it through the last 12 months without a major catastrophe. The EU despite the doomsters and the pessimists has shown its resilience.
Better still, whether in the Netherlands, France or Germany, a majority of Europeans have shown their ability to resist the toxic and corrosive populist messages of division and confrontation.
There’s more. The European economy is doing better and jobless rates are down. The EU’s executive European Commission last month sharply lifted its growth predictions to a 2.2 per cent expansion in 2017, the fastest pace in a decade. Significantly, unemployment in the Eurozone fell to 8.8pc in October, its lowest level since January 2009.
And while it may seem bizarre to outsiders, Britain’s decision to leave the EU — and the angst and remorse this is causing among many British people — has highlighted the successes of the Union.
It’s not just the incompetence of the British Brexit negotiators or the deep divisions the EU divorce has triggered within British political parties. It’s that each time Britain seeks to disentangle itself from the Union, it highlights just how much it is going to lose in terms of its interests, clout and reputation.
Take trade. Brexiteers may dream of a “Global Britain” sweeping across the world, striking magnificent free trade agreements, but the reality is that no country has said it would rather strike a trade deal with Britain than with the EU.
Also of course, it is now becoming clear that Brexit Britain will be economically worse off outside the EU and that crashing out without a deal would see the economy take a £100 billion hit. Since the Brexit vote, UK’s economic growth has slowed considerably and the country has been overtaken by the eurozone.
Interestingly also, part of the new energy in Europe is due to US President Donald Trump’s increasingly erratic behaviour. The EU has condemned the American president’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, saying that status of Jerusalem should be determined by Israelis and Palestinians in direct negotiations.
Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs, has said she has promised the Palestinian Authority she will work towards the division of Jerusalem.
In recent days, with Britain now out of the picture, EU nations have also achieved a 70-year-old ambition to integrate their defences by launching a pact between 25 EU governments to fund, develop and deploy armed forces together.
In what European Council President Donald Tusk described as “bad news for our enemies”, the EU decided to stop wasting billions of euros on fragmented defence policies while also lowering Europe’s heavy reliance on the United States.
Denmark, which has an opt-out from EU defence matters, and Malta were the only EU countries not to sign up along with Brexiting Britain. The pact, called Permanent Structured Cooperation, or Pesco, is meant as a show of unity and a tangible step in EU integration.
Trump’s criticism of low European defence spending and his constant warnings that Europe could no longer rely on the US if countries did not pay up, have also played a role.
This brings us to France and its charismatic young president, Emmanuel Macron, who is now viewed as the de facto leader of Europe albeit in partnership with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The latter, however, is a diminished figure after the recent elections as she struggles to form a government.
Last week, the French leader hosted the Paris climate summit with 50 heads of state and government and over 4,000 other participants. He then invited the five Sahel countries — Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad — to coordinate the fight against terrorism in the region.
But when it comes to EU reform, Macron is well aware that he cannot implement his European political ideas without the German chancellor.
Also, for all their happy year-end smiles, EU leaders are deeply divided not only on Eurozone reform but also on how to deal with refugees and migrants, with most central and eastern European states deeply opposed to taking in any newcomers despite EU demands that they do so.
The New Year will certainly confront Europe with new and complex challenges. But there’s a sense of achievement in having got through a difficult year, relatively unscathed. For the moment.
— The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels
Published in Dawn, December 16th, 2017