From German Chancellor Angela Merkel to British Prime Minister Theresa May, Europe and the bloc’s fight on terrorism featured high on EU leaders’ New Year greetings.
Chancellor Merkel called for “an open view of the world and self-confidence, in ourselves and our country” and attacked “distorted pictures” of the European Union and parliamentary democracy.
“We Germans should never be deceived into thinking that a happy future could ever lie in going it alone nationally,” she said.
Merkel, seeking a fourth term as chancellor in 2017, described 2016 as a year that gave many the impression that the world had “turned upside down”.
In her address, she compared Brexit to a “deep incision” and said that even though the EU was “slow and arduous”, other members of the bloc must remain focused on common interests that transcend national borders.
Theresa May used her new year greeting to reassure those who voted for Britain to stay in the EU that she will fight for their interests “around the negotiating table in Europe this year”.
In a video shot from Downing Street, the British prime minister acknowledged how “divisive” the June referendum has been for Britain and Europe, and called for unity, while appearing to open up to those who supported the losing side.
May could face another legal challenge to triggering Brexit unless she allows the House of Lords to vote on the issue.
Gina Miller, who helped bring the case that saw the High Court rule the Commons must vote on invoking Article 50, said in an interview that the Lords also need to hold a “proper debate”.
The case is now before the Supreme Court in London.
Following claims that the government is on track for a ‘hard Brexit’ without the single market and the customs union, May tried to reassure citizens that she will seek a relationship with the EU that respects everyone’s needs, and not just those who voted to leave.
“The right deal” for everyone
“We all want to see a Britain that is stronger than it is today,” May said.
“We all want a country that is fairer so that everyone has the chance to succeed. We all want a nation that is safe and secure for our children and grandchildren. These ambitions unite us, so that we are no longer the 52% who voted leave and the 48% who voted remain, but one great union of people and nations with a proud history and a bright future. So when I sit around the negotiating table in Europe this year, it will be with that in mind – the knowledge that I am there to get the right deal not just for those who voted to leave, but for every single person in this country.”
French President François Hollande also mentioned British voters’ June decision to leave the European Union, and the US presidential election won by Donald Trump in November, as events that demonstrated that democracy, freedom and peace were “vulnerable and reversible”.
Hollande, who said he would not seek a second term in 2017, defended his legacy as president and addressed the policies of the anti-immigration and anti-euro National Front, whose leader Marine Le Pen is set to make it to the second round of this year’s election, according to polls.
“In less than five months, you will have to make a choice, my dear compatriots. It will be decisive for France. It’s about the social model to which you are attached because it guarantees the equality of all …,” he said.
“There are periods in history when everything may change dramatically. We’re in one of them,” Hollande said in the address to the nation.
“How can we imagine our country being curled up behind walls, reduced to its internal market, going back to its national currency and, on top of that, discriminating between its own children according to their origins?” he said.
Both Hollande and Merkel referred to Islamist terrorism as one of the most severe challenges facing the EU.
In her annual address, the German chancellor said 2016 has been “a year of severe tests” – the toughest being the “bitter and sickening” acts of terror committed by people claiming to seek refuge in the country.
It follows a year in which a number of attacks were carried out by refugees in Germany. Twelve people were killed and 20 injured when Tunisian national Anis Amri drove a truck into crowds at one of the Berlin’s Christmas markets two weeks ago, and several other fatal attacks by refugees occurred earlier in the year.
Hollande vowed to mobilise all the necessary measures to combat terrorists.
“We’re not done with the plight of terrorism. We have to continue fighting abroad and this is the reason of our military operations in Mali, Syria and Iraq… and at home to foil attacks, prevent acts intended to hit public order and radicalisation,” he said. “In this fight, our democracy will emerge victorious,” he added.
Italian President Sergio Mattarella in his address said that the country must adopt a new electoral law before a national vote can be called.
Italy adds to EU uncertainty
When Matteo Renzi resigned as prime minister in early December after losing a referendum over his flagship constitutional reform, many party leaders called for a snap election.
Mattarella refused and instead named former Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni to form a government.
“There’s no doubt that in certain moments it is best to consult voters. But to call voters to an early election is a very serious choice,” he said.
“There must be clear and effective voting rules so that electors can express, with efficacy, their will and find it applied in an elected parliament … Today, these rules do not exist,” he said.
Although the current legislature is not due to end until 2018, most parties, including Renzi’s Democratic Party and the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, say they want elections in 2017, which would throw the 28-country bloc into even greater uncertainty.