2019 in review: Brexit dominated the European agenda


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Pro-Brexit protesters outside the Houses of Parliament in London on December 19, 2019.
Image Credit: Reuters

Brexit, Brexit and more Brexit. That’s the issue that has dominated Europe for 2019. And while the United Kingdom was supposed to leave the European Union (EU) at midnight on March 30, now nine months later, it still remains in the EU.

But not for long, with a fresh mandate and a large majority in hand, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will be ending his nation’s 46-year marriage with the economic, political and social bloc of 28 nations at the end of next month.

For most Europeans, Brexit couldn’t come soon enough, with the issue dominating the stage there for the past three years. Now, with Britain out in a month’s time, the EU can get down to business on other issues.

A devastating fire swept through Notre Dame cathedral in Paris on April 15, an apt metaphor perhaps for the turmoil faced by French President Emmanuel Macron.

– Mick O’Reilly, Gulf News Foreign Correspondent

May’s European Parliament elections did see populist and far-Right parties elected to Strasbourg, a worry that they might indeed to able to shape the make-up of the Commission, the Cabinet-like committee responsible for the day-to-day running of the bloc that together represents the world’s third-largest economy. Those fears didn’t materialise as both parties on the Left, combined with those at the centre, worked together to shut out the populists. And when the top jobs in EU were filled in September, those Left and centre parties held sway.

Regional elections in Germany, however, showed that the anti-immigrant and populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), remains a powerful and growing force, one that undermined three decades of Christian Democrats’ rule in Bavaria. With the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats now broadly aligned in a grand coalition, AfD has been shut out of power in Germany’s regional parliaments — for now.

Spain too is a nation that has failed to resolve its political stalemate. Two general elections this year have so far failed to provided any combination of parties with enough votes to secure a majority in the Chamber of Deputies in Madrid. The Socialists of caretaker Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez have managed to gain most seats in the elections in June and November, but still far short of a viable majority.

Breaking the deadlock in Spain

It’s a political stalemate that’s not without precedent, with four general elections in as many years still failing to break the deadlock. For many Spaniards, the rise of the anti-immigrant and Franco-support Vox party has offered an opportunity to break that deadlock. In the most recent general election, the party more than doubled its seats from 24 to 52 and finished as the party with third-most support.

In Italy, the League, led by former deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, made a rare but costly political miscalculation in August, calling for a no-confidence motion in Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. Analysts saw it as a blatant attempt to force the collapses of the coalition government the League participated in, along with the Five Star Movement. It was a gambit that failed. Conte out-manoeuvred the ambitious Salvini, striking a new power-sharing deal with the centre-left Democratic Party. Salvini’s raw political move had been triggered by rising support in opinion polls for his tough anti-immigrant stance and strong support for the League in May’s European elections.

In recent months, however, Salvini’s populist League has been upstaged by the so-called “Sardines” movement — a broad, centre-Left activist coalition that is united by opposition to the vision of Italy put forward by populists.

Elections in Poland too saw the centre-Right returned, with the Justice and Freedom party winning overall control there. The re-elected government, however, is under scrutiny from Brussels and has been put on notice that its changes to the appointment of judges and prosecutors are in breach of EU membership conventions.

Focusing with clarity on  Poland and Hungary

Similarly, the government of Viktor Orban in Hungary is facing EU sanctions for its concerted campaign against media freedoms and other attacks on political process and debate. With Brexit now mostly done, the EU will be able to focus with clarity on just how to deal with Poland and Hungary — nations that along with the Czechs are bucking quotas on accepting refugees fleeing violence and conflict in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.

Greece and neighbouring North Macedonia largely resolved their historic differences over the use of the name, allowing for the small former Yugoslav state to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the EU down the road.

Greeks too elected a new government in June, electing Kyriakos Mitsotakis and his centre-right conservative New Democracy (ND) party.

It was a stunning turnaround for the 51-year old from a classic Greek political dynasty to lead the nation of 10.7 million. His father, Konstantinos Mitsotakis, was the prime minister in the early 1990s, while his sister, Dora Bakoyannis, was mayor of Athens when the city hosted the Olympics in 2004, before becoming Greek foreign minister.

A devastating fire swept through Notre Dame cathedral in Paris on April 15, an apt metaphor perhaps for the turmoil faced by French President Emmanuel Macron as legions of the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) opposed his plans for pension and economic reform.



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