A Discussion with Angelika Mlinar, MEP for the Austrian liberal party NEOS, part of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe.
What does the future of Europe look like? Between the migration crisis, Brexit, and the election of Trump, 2016 was a difficult year for the European Union. However, 2017 was a year of relief: in the Austrian elections, the far-right candidate was not voted in; Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party was defeated in the Netherlands; and the election in France was perhaps the greatest relief, as Macron, the only publically pro-European candidate of the six, won the presidency. By the time the elections in Germany came around in September 2017, there was a sense that Europe was no longer “in danger,” despite the AfD’s electoral victory. While the second iteration of the Austrian elections and the right-wing government that was assembled is a blow to Austria as a liberal democracy, there remains hope that the Member States will be able to come together and address their collective issues in the coming year.
EU rebels Hungary and Poland
However, not all of 2017 was positive for the EU. Article 7, the so-called “nuclear option,” has been triggered against Poland, and in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has declared liberal democracy dead, using strongman politics to suppress civil society and truncate the opposition. Orban’s party is a member of the European People’s Party, and they have largely protected him until now, though this is not a sustainable action for the long term. As Hungary is much worse off economically than Poland, the invitation to enter the Eurozone tied to democratic reform conditions could be the impetus necessary to affect change. The challenges to solidarity within the EU from the governments of Hungary and Poland can be felt throughout the EU. The EU is in a time of chiaroscuro, with tension between the light and the darkness in its politics.
EU citizens do not feel safe
The key issues facing the European Union today include security for its member states and the lack of a cohesive migration policy. Many people living in the member states do not feel adequately protected by the EU from external threats. Although statistics show that security concerns in the EU have not risen proportionally to the perceived lack of safety felt by citizens, these facts and figures have little effect because people are chiefly driven by emotion, and express that they do not feel safe as members of the EU. This contributed to a notable shift to the right in EU politics, which has placed heavier emphasis on border control and security than on freedom, inclusion, and open societies.
Furthermore, the EU lacks a cohesive migration policy. There is not only a need for a reformation of the Dublin Agreement, but also for a system of processing and integrating migrants once they arrive in the EU. Previously, a divide in the continent was felt between North and South, primarily along economic lines (Austerity vs. Spending). Now the larger fault line is felt between the East and West, and the crux of the issue is migration.
Future of Brexit
The EU faces multiple issues this year regarding the Brexit negotiations. The negotiations must be finalized by March 29, 2019, when the UK is set to leave the EU. As the UK was one of the largest contributors to the EU financially, the issue of debts needs to be negotiated, as well as the status of UK citizens living in other EU countries (4 million people). The border with Northern Ireland will also be a problem: unless the UK is willing to stay in the internal market and follow the EU’s rules, a soft or nonexistent border will not work. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair is a proponent of having a second referendum, as UK citizens could now make a more informed decision, knowing what the outcome with the rest of Europe would be.
European unity in face of growing challenges
Regarding the transatlantic relationship, the Trump presidency has inadvertently inspired greater unity within the EU. The great strides that were made in the Common Security and Defense Policy (CPSD), Mlinar argued, would have been unimaginable in early 2016, as the EU realizes that it cannot rely as fully on the U.S. for its support and shared goals.
Anne-Marie Simon, Program Assistant, Transatlantic Dialogue Program, Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom