Eurasia Group | Year in Review 2019: Europe

Year in Review 2019: Europe

18 December 2019
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson campaigns in South Benfleet. REUTERS. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson campaigns in South Benfleet. REUTERS.
(This is the third in a series of year-end analyses of the main countries and regions covered by Eurasia Group. Read our pieces on the Americas, China, and the Middle East and North Africa for additional coverage.)

In 2019, the UK made progress toward Brexit, European populists failed in their attempt to shake up EU institutions, French President Emmanuel Macron made his bid to replace German Chancellor Angela Merkel as Europe's most-influential leader, and Russian election interference campaigns kept Western officials on edge. Eurasia Group experts Charles Lichfield and Alex Brideau explain the significance of these events for 2020.

What is the status of Brexit?

In less than a year, Brexit has gone from highly uncertain to a definite outcome, scheduled for 31 January 2020. At the beginning of 2019, the withdrawal agreement secured by former Prime Minister Theresa May suffered a crushing defeat in the House of Commons. She survived long enough to make two additional attempts but resigned after her Conservative Party finished fifth in European Parliament elections in which the country didn't expect to participate until just weeks before.

Pretending to be relaxed about a “no deal” exit made Boris Johnson the indisputable favorite in the contest to replace May. Even after becoming prime minister, he kept claiming such an outcome would be satisfactory and tried to prevent parliament from stopping him by proroguing it. The prorogation was annulled by the Supreme Court and, for once, lawmakers worked across party lines to force the government to take its negotiations with the EU more seriously.

That embarrassing setback seems a distant memory now. Johnson convinced the EU to re-open negotiations by dropping his objection to customs and regulatory checks between Northern Ireland and the island of Great Britain. The potential for greater regulatory divergence for England, Wales, and Scotland made the deal more popular among Conservatives, but it still failed to obtain majority support.

An election was called close to the 31 October deadline for Brexit, when opposition lawmakers felt it was the only way to secure an extension in the process. That will now be seen as a strategic error by the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party. A new extension was secured—to 31 January—but the election results unquestionably give Johnson the mandate to take the UK out of the EU at that time. A large majority also gives him the freedom to decide how close the future relationship should be, and whether to extend the short, 11-month transition period.

Did populism have as big an impact on European politics this year as initially feared?

Eurasia Group's Top Risks for 2019 anticipated a double whammy of populist governments in important member states combined with populist gains in the European Parliament elections in May. Our prediction wasn't wrong, but, with hindsight, it was perhaps a little alarmist.

The balance of power in European Parliament has shifted profoundly—but not in the populists' favor. Rather, the biggest gains were made by parties that are pro-European but don't feel they belong in either of the two blocs, center right and center left, that have dominated parliament since its creation.

Now deprived of a majority, the European People's Party and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats have lost their stranglehold over EU policy and must deal with the Liberal Renew group and the Greens. This can make day-to-day business more complicated, as occurred in the nomination process for European Commission positions.

The threat of far-right groups finally overcoming their differences and uniting to form the biggest or second-biggest group did not materialize. This means that their influence will remain small, even at the committee level.

It would be wrong to ignore the strength of their performance on the ground, however. Right-wing euroskeptics topped the polls in three of the most important member states: France, Italy, and Poland. Poland and Hungary are run by governments of this ideology and, though the populist coalition governing Italy fell this year, the far-right League is consolidating its position ahead of Italy's next elections.

Can Macron replace Merkel as Europe's leader?

French President Emmanuel Macron clearly wants the job. But it's unclear if he has what it takes to achieve the ambitious goals he has set for the continent.

After five wavering years under Francois Hollande, EU capitals are happy to see dynamic proposals coming from Paris. Earlier in his term, Macron also sought to build a friendly relationship with US President Donald Trump—something he intended to use to defend Europe's interests during the then-nascent trade war.

Now that Macron is more of a known quantity, the results are disappointing. Fellow member states suspect he sees Europe as a vehicle for France's global role, rather than a partnership of equals. He is clearly less devoted to keeping new member states in the bloc than Merkel—she saw that as Germany's responsibility. His brinkmanship on Brexit extensions and unexpected launch of a Russian rapprochement came without prior consultation.

Still, Macron has overcome the Yellow Vest crisis, and with no strong opposition ahead of the next election cycle, it is assumed he will be presiding over a relatively more dynamic France in the years to come. He has also managed to obtain the appointment of officials to the European Commission who have policy goals that are compatible with his.

Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen has promised a “geopolitical commission” that does not shy away from using the EU's commercial might to protect its interests. This is a classic Macron compromise between openness and protectionism. Clearly, his influence is considerable.

After successfully interfering in a string of foreign elections, will Russia try again in 2020? Will the US again be a target?

Ahead of November's presidential election in the US, concern over possible Russian election interference will be front-and-center. But it is unclear whether the incentives are aligned for Russian actors to behave as they did in 2016, when US intelligence agencies say they engaged in hacking and an influence campaign on social media in favor of Trump's bid for the White House.

There is reason to think that President Vladimir Putin is not as enthusiastic about that kind of operation this time around. For one thing, those activities led to more US sanctions, which collectively harm Russia's ability to attract foreign investment. Second, the Russian public wants the Kremlin to focus more on a sluggish economy that requires fixing, rather than new foreign adventures.

Even so, the outcome of the US election carries big implications, so a repeat of the influence campaign via social media and state-run outlets therefore isn't far-fetched. Whether that really helps Russia is an open question—arguably, the Kremlin has not benefited much from Trump's victory.

So any potential gains would depend in part on how US politicians react. The Trump impeachment has revived the 2016 interference as a political issue. Congress or the White House could use evidence of any Russian action to hit Moscow with new sanctions. But if one party denies that Russia is interfering at all, the Kremlin may not be risking major punishment.
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