The autumn of our discontent?

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

Climate change, the Chinese economic downturn, the Iran nuclear deal and a series of important European elections are among the challenges ahead this autumn. [™ Pacheco_Flickr]

EU policy makers will have to hold their nerve in this autumn’s intense and challenging legislative period, writes Jan Techau. 

Jan Techau is the director of Carnegie Europe, the European centre of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The autumn season is always the hard part of European policymaking. After the long summer break, what could be conveniently fitted into a full six months in the first half of the year must be squeezed into the brutally short run between early September and mid-December.

In 2015, these three and a half months promise to be extraordinarily dense. Rarely has the outlook for that period been more dismal than this time around. Numerous crises of fundamental quality will overlap and push the capacity for European policymaking to its limits. The coming months could well be remembered as the autumn of our discontent.

The refugee crisis is the first ingredient in the autumn malaise of 2015. To be sure, the new Franco-German plans for greater cooperation on immigration and security, announced on 24 August in Berlin by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande, make sense and finally bring an element of leadership to the festering problem. But European governments have proved to have an almost unlimited talent for making fools of themselves on an issue that can be tackled only by all of them together.

Whether the unavoidable system of mandatory quotas for refugees across the EU can be implemented in a universally acceptable way remains doubtful. The political bargains needed to get there will be extremely tough to negotiate, and even if the system came about, ugly scenes might follow, like those seen very recently in Germany, where refugees were attacked in violent riots organized by neo-Nazi gangs.

At the same time, the Russia-Ukraine crisis, Europe’s most important foreign policy stress test, will enter its next round. Toward the end of the year, the EU’s 28 nations will assess the implementation of the so-called Minsk II agreement to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine. The result of that assessment will have a decisive impact on whether the EU’s sanctions regime against Russia can stay in place or must be abandoned. Unanimity will be needed for the continuation of the measures, and the haggling over whether or not Minsk is a success has already begun.

While not all EU members may agree, the accord has produced some relative calm. But key provisions have not been implemented — and in fact, Russia never meant to implement them. The government of President Petro Poroshenko in Kiev is not without blame here either, so a unified EU position might be difficult to sustain on an issue of the highest priority for European security. A show of disunity among EU members would be disastrous.

All this will play out against the backdrop of the developing diplomatic effort to curb Iran’s nuclear programme. The international agreement reached in Geneva on 14 July will most likely be ratified by the US Congress in mid-September, but the key part of the story is only then to follow: how can the verification regime that will be put in place to oversee the implementation of the agreement be tough and verifiable?

More importantly, perhaps, how can violations by Iran, which many observers expect to occur, be sanctioned in a meaningful way? The deal is only as good as its verification system, and the doubts about that part of the agreement remain profound.

Also this autumn, the drama over global efforts to tackle climate change will enter its next stage. Between 30 November and 11 December, the world will congregate in Paris to negotiate global climate protection goals and the ways to implement them. Despite some hopeful signs coming from both the United States and China, the chances for a meaningful deal that does not water down goals and tools are small.

China’s massive current economic downswing will make things all the more difficult. A meaningless result in Paris, or outright failure, could send yet another message of irresponsibility from the global community and add to a feeling of impotence in the face of complex, cross-border problems.

At least four important elections will add suspense, but also the possibility of harder times ahead. Poland (on 25 October), Spain (before 20 December), Greece (perhaps as early as mid-September), and Turkey (most likely in November) will elect new parliaments and therefore new governments.

Poland is expected to become a less constructive player if the staunchly conservative Law and Justice party comes first in the poll.

In Spain, the big question is how strong the populist Podemos party will emerge from the vote, and how much of an impact it might have after a government is formed. The party’s antireform rhetoric raises fears that Spain’s fairly successful way of dealing with the fallout from the financial crisis may come to an end.

In Greece, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will seek a fresh mandate after effectively having been reformatted from Marxist revolutionary to more pragmatic problem solver. Can he get reforms done while keeping the country together? Or will renewed populism be too strong a temptation?

The outcome of the Greek election is as unclear as that of the Turkish poll, which became necessary after no government could be formed following the last election barely three months ago. Many external observers fear that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an’s party might score the success of a parliamentary majority that it could not achieve in June, giving Erdo?an even more power to rebuild the country after his own taste.

Add to all of this the increasingly harsh rhetoric coming out of the early stages of the 2016 US presidential election cycle, the worsening of the domestic situation in Russia, the risk of global recession after China’s economic meltdown, more atrocities by the self-styled Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the ever-growing possibility of a major terrorist attack in Europe, a victory by the left-leaning Jeremy Corbyn in the UK Labour Party’s leadership race, and a new round of espionage leaks by American whistleblower Edward Snowden, and you have all the ingredients for a crisis cocktail of historic proportions. Not to mention the unknown unknowns, black swans, and freak accidents.

Strong nerves will be needed this autumn.

This piece was originally published on the Carnegie Europe website.

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