SO it’s September and Europe is back at work. There is much to discuss and to do. Problems abound. Europe faces a host of difficult challenges, many internal, some external — and next year is set to be even more challenging. Everyone is braced for an autumn and winter of discontent. The world kept turning as the EU took a long summer break. The war in Syria continued to wreak havoc, refugees fled devastation, the earthquake in Italy killed and injured many, there were suicide bombs in Yemen, Turkey and Kabul and strongmen in Russia, Turkey and the US thundered poison and venom.
And oh yes, there were the Olympics, bringing some relief and excitement in an increasingly angry, intolerant and difficult world. There was also a landmark peace deal in Colombia between the government and the main left-wing rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), putting an end to one of the world’s longest-running insurgencies.
Europe reacted to the events of course — but internal difficulties took centre stage. Europe’s focus is on itself, its challenges and dilemmas. Certainly, many EU policymakers keep a close watch on global events. But in the end, for many, Europe comes first.
Even when it comes to taking a holiday. Its certainly good politics for European leaders to take their vacations in Europe. Trekking in the Alps rather than in the Himalayas shows that a European leader — like Britain’s new Prime Minister Theresa May — is careful with money and committed to Europe.
But staying close to home has its disadvantages. Staying inside the cosy European cocoon may be cheap, comfortable and familiar. But it leads to complacency. If EU leaders had travelled a bit further, say to Asia for instance, they would know that the EU star is rapidly losing its sparkle.
Europe has certainly been in the news over the summer. But the headlines have been less than flattering. Media across the world has focused on three key questions which unfortunately appear to define Europe in 2016: burkinis, borders and Brexit. Gone are the compliments and the glowing words, the soft focus on European cities, museums, and food, abiding admiration for European integration efforts, the noble pledge to steer clear of war and turmoil. No longer, no more.
Step outside Europe and its clear: the EU has lost its reputation and clout. It’s political, diplomatic and economic influence is slipping, its standing is in tatters. Forget talk about European values. A watching world knows very clearly that Europe has lost its mojo. And nobody is celebrating.
For most of the summer, France grabbed the headlines with its bizarre decision to ban so-called ‘burkinis’. Images of Muslim women being ordered to undress on French beaches caught the global imagination, triggering animated debates on what had happened to a country known for its commitment to “liberte, egalite and fraternite”.
The burkini was of course only the tip of the iceberg. As the country heads for presidential elections in 2017, the French debate on Islam is expected to become even fiercer, with Marine Le Pen, the leader of the xenophobic and anti-Muslim Front National, calling the shots and other politicians including the centre-right presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, frantically struggling to keep up.
The game in France over the coming months is going to be a simple one: who can sound tougher on Islam and Muslims. Le Pen is unlikely to become French president. But she will set the political agenda for the country and dominate the political discourse for months to come.
Which brings us to refugees and Europe’s ongoing struggle to deal with the large number of migrants and asylum seekers who keep knocking on its doors.
The EU once captured the headlines for its bold moves to eliminate borders to create a frontier free single market. The image now is of an EU determined to protect itself with barbed wire fences, armed policemen and more. This is especially the case in many eastern European states where restrictive new laws making life difficult for asylum seekers and refugees, anti-migrant rhetoric by decision makers and high-ranking politicians is commonplace.
Asylum seekers and refugees are called “intruders,” and “potential terrorists”, bent on destroying Western civilisation and Christianity. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban himself in July referred to migration as “poison”. Gyorgy Schopflin, a ruling party member with a seat in the European Parliament, suggested on Twitter that pigs’ heads should be placed on the border fence with Serbia to deter Muslim refugees from entering Hungary.
And then of course there is Brexit. The world can’t really believe that a country would willingly leave a much-coveted rich men’s club. And no one seems as confused as Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May.
Her mantra of “Brexit means Brexit” is beginning to ring hollow, not least because the government has yet to decide on just when to invoke “article 50” which will kick-start negotiations on Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.
Many including former premier Tony Blair seem to believe that Britain could change course either through a second referendum or new elections. But others denounce this as wishful thinking.
Who knows? Europeans once stood out for their post-modern values and aspirations, their ability to make friends with former enemies. That’s no longer the case. Europe in the autumn of 2016 appears fragile, fraught and afraid. And it may stay this way for most of next year.