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Europe in 2016

Throughout 2016, Europe has lurched from one crisis to another. The British voted to leave the EU. Russia stepped up its interference in domestic politics in several European countries by planting false news stories and financing populist, right-wing movements. Terrorist attacks and the refugee and eurozone crises divided the EU’s 28 member states. On the other side of the Atlantic, Americans elected Donald Trump as their next president on a ticket promising to make the United States great again. Trump professes little interest in what has kept the West together: the transatlantic relationship.
All the above crises have one thing in common. They are having a profound effect on Europe’s future. As 2016 draws to a close, the EU’s extreme vulnerability and growing instability are exposed. The Brexit decision has weakened Europe. If they chose to do so, European leaders could mitigate the political fallout of Britain’s exit. But instead of using Brexit to push for further integration or a two-speed Europe—or even as a chance to get out of their bubble to explain why Europe matters—most leaders are engaged in petty institutional or domestic power games. As they do so, they seem to underestimate how the roles of Russia and the United States are planting the seeds of Europe’s destruction. For centuries, European states were always at war with each other or had various empires vying for supremacy. The EU, which grew out of the ashes of World War II, put an end to this internecine fighting and these power struggles. But the EU is a young construction. Its existence has always relied on the United States. Dean Acheson, who was U.S. secretary of state from 1949 to 1953, believed passionately in a Western Europe knitted to the United States through NATO and the shared values of democracy and liberalism. That dependence on the United States, exemplified by the U.S. nuclear security umbrella, is no longer a given. Yet many European leaders and politicians, especially in Berlin, don’t want to recognise this changing geostrategic reality. They are not prepared to consider the possibility of what happens the day after the United States withdraws from Europe. In practice, that means they are unwilling to consider any alternative to the U.S. security umbrella, such as Europe having its own nuclear defence—which could exist through France. There are Germans who shudder at the idea of a European nuclear deterrent on the grounds that it would provoke Russia. But what world are they living in? Russia is already deploying nuclear-capable missiles in its exclave of Kaliningrad, which is sandwiched between EU and NATO members Lithuania and Poland. Yet Europe is muddling through each crisis without realising that this time round, the EU’s defence and durability are at stake. Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, knows exactly what buttons to press when it comes to Europe. Despite German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s admirable tenacity in confronting Putin—primarily by pushing the EU to keep sanctions imposed on Russia after it annexed Crimea in March 2014 and then de facto occupied the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine—she is practically alone in her consistency. She is also the one leader whom Putin wants defeated as she makes a bid in late 2017 to serve a fourth term as chancellor. Germany’s security services are acutely aware of how Russia may interfere in the federal election. But most EU leaders have a singular lack of political will to act, coupled with a dangerous complacency about the threats facing them. This is despite the fact that Russian interference in the German election—as well as in votes in France and the Netherlands—would weaken Europe. The threat is plain to see: Europe’s democracy and stability are being threatened as they were during the Cold War. Then, Europe had the United States to protect it. Today, efforts by Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński, and France’s National Front Leader Marine Le Pen to defend their nation-states against the EU are grist to Putin’s mill. Unless Trump radically shifts his stances toward Europe and Russia, the United States will unwittingly hand Russia a silver platter that will lead to the breakup of the transatlantic alliance. That could transform the EU into a motley of discombobulated nation-states. European leaders at the national and EU levels are contributing to the gradual eclipse of what could have been a powerful, confident, and strong European Union. In its place could be a mishmash of nation-states that have neither the security nor the leadership to protect what Europe stands for. Such are the trends of 2016. Such is the specter of 2017 and beyond unless leaders adopt a radically different mind-set to push Europe together. Have a great 2017 everyone.

Article for NewEuropeans.net: ‘Where now for Cyprus?’

Results in Sunday’s general election showed that Cyprus’s ruling conservatives took the lead in Sunday’s general election, while a far-right party won its first seats in the legislature amid voter disillusionment after a 2013 financial meltdown. With the voting tally at 100 per cent, and an unprecedentedly high abstention rate, the right-wing Democratic Rally party was ahead with 30.6 per cent of the vote followed by Communist AKEL with 25.6 per cent. Compared to the previous elections of 2011, those two main parties on the Cypriot political scene suffered setbacks. AKEL’s Communists lost up to seven percentage points while Democratic Rally lost 3.7 percentage points. By contrast ELAM, an extremist party forged on the coat-tails of Greece’s Golden Dawn, scraped past a newly-imposed 3.6 percent electoral threshold and won up to two seats, according to preliminary estimates. So where does Cyprus go from here? Well, its problems have not changed. The ongoing Cyprus problem, the recent financial collapse, and Turkey’s membership of the European Union are key issues that remain. The Cyprus problem is the longest dispute the EU has ever had to deal with. Since 1974 negotiations have been hopeless, and still we have a divided island, with a so called “North Cyprus” which the EU refuses to recognise. But there is hope from this election. Nicos Anastasiades has proved to be the closest yet to a reunification deal, and Akinci is also pushing for a solution. Combine that with optimism of Jean-Claude Juncker, Martin Schulz, and Ban Ki-moon, who all say a deal is ‘highly likely’ this year, there is certainly a feeling amongst those in charge that this year could be the year. Sunday’s election was the first since Cyprus required an international bailout in 2013, partly because of the exposure its systemic banks had to Greece’s write-down of sovereign debt. It introduced a ‘bail-in’ on client’s deposits at one major bank and wound down a second, leaving thousands of disgruntled bank deposit holders.  Since then, Cyprus has returned to growth, with rising employment, investment from abroad increasing, and most importantly has exited the International Monetary Fund program. You could say that Cyprus is the example Europe needs in regards to dealing with financial problems. However, one problem still remains and that is the outward flow of labour from Cyprus, migrating abroad to places such as the United Kingdom, the United States of America and Greece. The loss of tax revenue and increasing spending on pensions is something Cyprus will have to tackle if it wants to maintain its recent economic recovery, and not fall back to austerity which was the key to getting the economy back on track. And now, Turkey. Its membership has caused quite a row amongst European nations. Cyprus has made it absolutely clear that it will use all voting powers available, in order to block its access to the EU unless a solution is found to the Cyprus problem. But looking at the current state of play, the EU has already promised free movement for Turkish citizens, increased funds for the migrant crisis, and most importantly fast-track membership to the EU. So what makes us think Cyprus could have a mass influence over its future membership? Well, given it can veto, and influence the likes of Greece to veto too, Turkey could very well be blocked entry if it doesn’t change its ways. Nations such as France have also been contemplating a referendum for Turkey’s membership, whereas the UK Vote Leave campaign is using Turkey’s membership talks as a reason for the UK to leave the EU, as they argue immigration from such membership could further put a strain to public services. The problems have not ended there. Cyprus now has an even bigger problem on its hands… The upcoming referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU. As weird as it may sound, the outcome could very well have an impact, not least because 72,000 expats live there, but because Britain is a guarantor protector of Cyprus in the case a war ever again breaks out. Cyprus is one of two nations (along with the Maltese) who are eligible to vote in this referendum, so it is important Anastasiades sends a clear message to voters back in the UK that the relationship should continue with the UK remaining in the EU. The EU-Cyprus relationship has always been strong. From not recognising the occupied area, right down to allowing its small economy to join the Euro currency, and prosper. Focusing on the future, there are two key priorities. One, resume peace talks and get that solution. Two, make sure Cyprus gets the Cypriot voters back in the UK to vote to stay.