The Yomiuri ShimbunCan the European Union overcome the dual crises of Britain’s exit from the EU and the proliferation of terrorism, and maintain its stability? It is vital for its major member countries, which are to hold national elections one after another this year, to strengthen their unity.
Britain has been set to formally notify the EU as early as March of its withdrawal from the bloc, starting the formal negotiation process to establish a new relationship between Britain and the EU.
It will mark an important stage whereby the process of European integration, which had continuously expanded and deepened ties within the bloc over the past 60 years, will be forced to take a step backward for the first time.
Populist political parties, which oppose EU policies and tout exclusivism and “put us first” nationalistic slogans, are invigorated in EU countries.
In March, a general election is planned to be held in the Netherlands; in April and May a presidential election is slated in France; and in the autumn a general election is to be held in Germany. These elections are to be held under a structure whereby established political parties, which attach importance to the EU framework, will be challenged by populist parties.
Should populist forces make great strides in the elections, the EU will lose sight of integration. This could be a historic trial.
Lying behind these developments are contradictions within the euro system that came to light following the Greek crisis in 2010.
The weakness of the eurozone countries using a single currency while adopting different fiscal policies has brought about a chain reaction of credit uncertainty. A sense of distrust regarding the economic management of the EU has been growing.
Also, from 2015, there were massive inflows of refugees to Europe and acts of terrorism occurred frequently, which caused concern over the deterioration of public security to spread in the bloc.
It is a matter of urgency for leaders of the established parties to take the public discontent to heart. The leaders must demonstrate their posture to deal with the problems by mobilizing all the policy means available to the member countries and by the EU.
Particularly important in predicting the future of Europe is the French presidential election.
The center-left party led by President Francois Hollande has lost the public’s trust over a sluggish economy and large-scale terror attacks. Hollande has been forced not to run for reelection.
The focal point in the election is whether Francois Fillon, former prime minister and a candidate of the center-right Republican Party, can block far-right National Front party leader Marine Le Pen from winning.
Calling for the country “to regain control of its borders,” Le Pen has made an official pledge to improve public security. Her policies have a strong tinge of exclusivism, such as opposing the acceptance of refugees.
It is worrisome that she is calling for France’s withdrawal from the eurozone, claiming it helps rebuild the French economy. If Le Pen is elected in the country, which led the creation of the euro system, it would be inevitable for political and economic sectors of Europe to be plunged into confusion.
Fillon, who values the role of the EU, has advocated economic rejuvenation through deregulation. As a step to enhance security, he has also said he will seek to amend the Schengen Agreement, a treaty aimed at dispensing with internal border checks.
There is no denying that the treaty has made it easier also for terrorists to move across national borders. In light of recent public security concerns, an adjustment of the accord is one viable option commensurate with the current situation.
Heal north-south rift
In Europe’s greatest power of Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel seeks to retain leadership. Although the German economy appears steady, Merkel’s political footing is less than solid due to the mounting criticism leveled at her over a massive influx of refugees into Germany and the terrorist attack that took place in Berlin.
The Alternative for Germany (AfD), a newly rising far-right party that has denounced the influx of refugees, has acquired greater support, and there is the likely prospect that the party will be able to gain seats in the legislature. There will be a shift in the political map of Germany, which has thus far been dominated by proponents of European integration.
Healing the north-south rift within Europe that has arisen from gaps in industrial competitiveness is one of the challenges facing Germany.
Germany’s calls so far for other EU countries to adopt austere fiscal and structural reform policies, based on its successful experience, have also produced mixed results.
Southern European nations have accused Germany of forcing them to practice austerity, and this has been exploited by anti-EU parties. There is cause for concern about the fact that the Five Star Movement, an Italian populist party that insists on the country’s exit from the eurozone, is gaining enough momentum to seek the position of the dominant party in a general election to be held as early as by the end of the year.
It is important for the EU to adopt a flexible policy that considers the situation of each member country. There is a pressing need to adopt measures to improve the employment opportunities of young people in Southern Europe. Germany, a nation that has enough spare resources to assist other EU members, would have to contribute to the growth of the eurozone as a whole through fiscal stimulus and other measures.
Curbing refugee inflow
To halt large inflows of refugees into Europe, cooperation with Middle Eastern countries is imperative. In March 2016, the EU reached an agreement with Turkey requiring refugees to be returned to that nation, a move that has decreased the flow of migrants entering the bloc.
There has been a stalemate in negotiations over Turkey’s accession to the EU due to the increasingly controlling rule by the administration of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Stability in Turkish society is a prerequisite for implementing the agreement smoothly.
There is concern regarding the recurrence of terrorist attacks in Turkey, such as the gunfire assault on a nightclub in the country’s largest city of Istanbul.
The EU, a single market with a population of 500 million, has a significant role to play in the world economy. The union shares such values as freedom and democracy with Japan and the United States, and it supports international order based on the rule of law. It is vital to prevent a situation in which the EU will become inward-looking, thereby making its presence felt less conspicuously.