Key elections and voting in the EU
2017 has seen significant political movements with mixed results: electoral winners have not derived from the usual political parties, and the rise of populist parties has been off-set by a strong show of support for open and inclusive societies. This has resulted in the emergence of a more polarized and jumbled political landscape.
Besides from the French elections, this year’s Austrian elections are the prime example of this. First, in presidential elections Alexander Van der Bellen, a Green party candidate won, while in the December elections Austria got a far-right vice-Chancellor in Heinz-Christian Strache. In the Netherlands Geert Wilders’ PVV did not manage to get the win it was looking for, and the very liberal D66 and socially inclusive GroenLinks managed to gain the most.
UK: Following the formal triggering of Article 50 in March, snap elections were called in the UK in June with the Conservative Party’s intention to increase its lead over the Labour Party, but which actually resulted in the party shrinking its hold on Parliament by losing 6 seats. As a consequence, the Conservatives struck an unusual coalition with the DUP in Northern Ireland, a deal which saw an extra £1 billion of funding allocated to Northern Ireland.
France: The emergence and rise of Emmanuel Macron – this year’s French elections saw a breakaway from the traditional leadership choice for the country. In June the charismatic Emmanuel Macron was elected as the 25th president of France and a fresh European political force began.
Germany: Following German elections in September, Europe was surprised by the reduction in support for one of its leading politicians, Angela Merkel, and the gain of the right-wing AfD. Germany is still awaiting the announcement on the CDU’s choice of coalition, although another ‘Groβe Koalition’ (with federalist Schultz at the helm of the SPD) looks to be increasingly likely.
Catalonia: At the end of October, the Catalan government held an unofficial vote for independence, which passed by a landslide, but on a turn-out of only 43%. Given that the vote was not carried out using the standard electoral infrastructure and procedures, it was not subject to the strict scrutiny of a sanctioned vote and as a result the Spanish government, supported by the Constitutional Court, declared the vote illegal. In the aftermath of the vote, senior figures in the Catalan government fled to Belgium to avoid arrest warrants issued against them in Spain, and which were subsequently withdrawn. The Catalan leader Puigdemont remains in Brussels from where he continues to campaign for Catalan independence, and December saw a protest march of approximately 45000 people in the Belgian capital. The Catalan Parliament has been dissolved and elections are due to be held on 21 December 2017.
In January 2017 Martin Schulz resigned as President of the European Parliament in order that he could stand as leader of the SPD party in the German elections. He was replaced by the Christian Democrat and close associate of Silvio Berlusconi, Antonio Tajani. Tajani expressed his intention to “demilitarize” the position of EP president, promising to be a ‘spokesman’ for the chamber rather than an institutional activist in the mould of Schulz.
December 2017 – with the Socialist party taking a hammering in the Dutch elections in 2017, Eurogroup President Jeroen Dijsselbloem was forced to step down (the role can only be held by ministers currently in office in a Eurozone member state). In December, EU finance ministers voted for the Portuguese minister Mario Centeno to replace him. Centeno has been held in high regard due to having led Portugal to a miraculous economic recovery over the past two years – this has been despite his opposition to austerity.
The Future of Europe Debate – with the EU finally showing steady signs of economic recovery, particularly in member states that were devastated by the financial crisis, the Commission turned its attention to the future reform of the EU. In March a white paper on the future of Europe was published, setting out five directions of travel for the EU. The publication was timely in the wake of the Brexit vote and the rise of extremism in continental Europe, not least in France where Marine Le Pen was polling strongly. The debate will continue in member states in 2018, although 2017 already saw major moves towards further integration in particular in the areas of defence and security as well as with regard to the refinement of the Economic and Monetary Union. It is notable that the number one priority of the Bulgarian Presidency, which takes over in January 2018, is the future of Europe and young people, with a focus on economic growth and social cohesion. The election of Macron in France and the potential rise in power of German federalist Schulz (who is in favour of a ‘United States of Europe) means that the future of Europe will remain a prominent feature on the Brussels agenda in the coming year.
On 29 March, the UK formally triggered Article 50 of the Treaty on the European Union (TEU) and notified the European Council of the UK’s intention to withdraw from the EU. Delivered just days before the 70th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, the letter marked the start of the two-year period over which the UK must negotiate its withdrawal from the EU. After months of phase I negotiations, on 8 December the UK and EU reached agreement over the three core issues of citizens’ rights, the Irish border and the divorce bill, with the Taskforce formally announcing that “sufficient progress” had been made. Further to this, on 13 December the Parliament voted to agree that negotiations could move on to phase II with the Council formalising the agreement on 15 December (more information on this in our Brexit update).
The digital world
In May, organisations, institutions and individuals around the world were hit by one of the biggest ransomware cryptoworms to date, WannaCry. Amongst the victims was DLA Piper.
November brought news that hackers stole data of 57 million Uber customers and drivers and that the company concealed the breach since 2016. The company was believed to have paid $100,000 to the hackers to delete the data.
Russia has been dogged this year by rumours that it meddled in the US presidential elections in 2016, targeting the election systems of 21 states and, in addition to Democrat inboxes, that it had attempted to hack into accounts belonging to diplomatic and security service personnel. There have been similar allegations made about the hacking of Emmanuel Macron’s emails and attempted influencing of the French presidential elections. It has also been alleged that Russia sought to influence the UK referendum (Brexit) vote through manipulation of social media including Twitter.
It has certainly been an eventful year for the US administration. Since January, the administration has struggled with allegations of secret contacts with senior Russian diplomats during the presidential campaign (a struggle that was marked by several high-level resignations, including the President’s national security adviser Michael Flynn, and the firing of the FBI Director James Comey). The year has also seen increasing tensions between the US and North Korea starting in June, when President Trump commented on the end of the era of strategic patience with the North Korean regime. In August, he warned North Korea that the US would unleash ‘fire, fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before’ and that the US remains ‘locked and loaded’ in case ‘North Korea acts unwisely.’ In November, the US declared North Korea a ‘state sponsor of terrorism.’ In August, ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville ended with the death of a young lawyer, Heather D. Heyer, when a van drove into the crowd of counter-protesters. Figures showed in November that Donald Trump was the most unpopular President of the United States of America of the last 65 years. The world watches with interest to see the outcome of the midterm elections which will take place in November 2018 and the ongoing criminal investigations into Trump’s former advisers Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort.
In the year that Donald Trump announced that the USA would no longer be a party to the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation (June), the world has been ravaged by environmental disasters. Hurricanes Maria, Irma and Harvey caused widespread damage in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, north-eastern Caribbean and the Florida Keys, and Texas respectively. Elsewhere Mexico, Bangladesh, Colombia and Sierra Leone saw earthquakes, flooding and mud/landslides. Most recently wildfires the size of New York have been raging through California.
2017 brought us yet another high-profile leak of documents related to tax evasion and avoidance. Paradise Papers produced further revelations as to how offshore structures have helped individuals and corporations avoid paying tax. The Parliament published its black list of tax havens in December and there have been calls for a permanent committee to be set up to deal with this recurring issue.
Attacks and unrest
2017 was also a year fraught with several large terror attacks in Europe. Manchester, Barcelona, London, Paris and Stockholm all experienced attacks using simple weapons and methods to inflict as great a damage as possible. The greatest terror attacks, however, happened outside Europe, in Somalia, Afghanistan, Mali, and Egypt where the numbers of those killed and injured were counted in hundreds.