Another tough year ahead for the EU

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The Syrian crisis will continue to plague the EU in 2016. Pro-Assad marcher, Berlin. [Joel Schalit/Flickr]

If the EU can overcome its many internal problems in 2016, especially the refugee and UK issues, then it will be able to make a greater impact in the external field, writes Fraser Cameron.

Fraser Cameron, a senior advisor to Cambre Associates, is director of the EU-Asia Centre, a former British diplomat, and EU official.

If 2015 was a difficult year for the EU in the external field, then 2016 promises to be even tougher.

A successful foreign policy depends on internal stability, and with the continuing refugee crisis, the UK referendum due in the summer, and ongoing worries about Greece, the EU does not project great domestic confidence.

Abroad, there is no end in sight to the Syria conflict and the associated refugee crisis which has led to sharply increased populism across the EU. Nor is there any sign that Russia will fulfill the Minsk agreements, and thus end the crisis in Ukraine. Terrorism is likely to continue to cause concern. The United States will be preoccupied with the election campaign and unlikely to be pro-active in foreign affairs. 

In the Middle East, Syria will continue to take centre stage. Some member states are engaged in the bombing campaign against ISIL, but it is not clear what this will achieve without boots on the ground. The EU will continue to support the political process aimed at a cease fire, but in the absence of international agreement on the fate of President Assad, it is doubtful that much progress can be made. We could be in for a thirty years war akin to the conflict that ravaged Europe in the Middle Ages, but claiming far more lives.

Syria is not the only problem country in the Middle East. The future of Iraq and Libya are also uncertain and could cause further problems for the EU. ISIL will certainly make use of the political vacuum to extend its activities in both countries, and thus provoke more refugees heading for Europe.

Turkey will also feature prominently on the EU’s agenda in 2016, as it remains key to any reduction in migration and refugee flows to Europe. Ankara can be expected to exact a high price for helping the EU, especially as negotiations on Turkey’s accession are unlikely to gain much momentum.

The so-called Middle East peace process shows no sign of being revived in 2016. Partners remain entrenched in their positions and refuse to compromise. The one bright spot in the Middle East is Iran. Assuming the nuclear deal holds and the moderates remain in a strong position after the February elections, there could be a steady improvement in EU-Iran relations following the lifting of sanctions as early as this month.

Russia will continue its traditional divide and rule tactics towards the EU. So far the EU has been impressive in maintaining a united front regarding sanctions against Russia for its behaviour in Ukraine. But it will not be easy to maintain this unity throughout the year. EU sanctions have not excluded the EU from serious business with Russia on Iran and Syria.

The EU’s eastern partners will continue to struggle. Only Georgia is wholeheartedly committed to reform. It changed prime ministers during the Xmas break with the respected foreign minister, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, replacing Irakli Garibashvili. Ukraine will continue to struggle to tackle widespread corruption and generate economic growth. Both countries have been given a boost, with EU visa liberalisation agreed on in December.

Looking further afield, the EU will host a conference on stability in Afghanistan during 2016, and increase its ties with Central Asia following Mogherini’s visit there before Christmas. There are growing concerns about instability in the region as a result of increased radicalisation, drugs and migration.

Asia will struggle to keep its place on the EU’s agenda. Trade will remain the driving force, and one can expect some controversy, as the EU decides whether or not to grant China market economy status by the end of the year. Beijing will continue to push the EU to engage more on its One Belt, One Road initiative, while China’s immediate neighbours will remain suspicious of its intentions in the South China Sea. The whole world will watch and be affected by China’s economic performance.

The EU hopes that 2016 will see the conclusion of the FTA negotiations with Japan, and a renewal of the dormant relationship with India. A visit to Brussels by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the Spring would be a useful first step. In 2016, Japan will chair the G7 and China the G20. It will be interesting to see how closely they coordinate the respective agendas.

In Africa, there seems little sign of a reduction in the number of countries torn by conflict, nor in the number of refugees heading towards Europe.

Against this bleak background, there are a few glimmers of hope. The two sides in the Cyprus conflict appear willing to settle their differences. There is some optimism that the dispute over the name Macedonia will finally be resolved. The process leading up to Mogherini’s global strategy report, due in June, should also help the EU become more unified as it has done vis-a-vis Russia. And more and more member states seem to accept the need to boost the EU’s limited CSDP capabilities.

In the end, it will come down to internal cohesion, greater solidarity and more self-confidence. If the EU can overcome its many internal problems in 2016, especially the refugee and UK issues, then it will be able to make a greater impact in the external field. In an increasingly interdependent world, there is an urgent need for a strong EU voice in global affairs.

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