2015: Terror, refugees and the euro crisis
This year Europe was shaken by more than the conflict over borders and barbed wire in view of hundreds of thousands of refugees. The euro seemed doomed due to the Greek crisis, Paris was the target of two terrorist attacks, and far-right parties and movements gained new impetus. Are there still reasons to be optimistic about 2016?
Europe's annus horribilis
2015 has laid bare the weaknesses of the European Union, political scientist Cas Mudde comments in the blog Open Democracy: "Devastating terrorist attacks, months of insecurity about the Eurozone, huge electoral victories for populist parties, an unprecedented refugees crisis. ... There is no doubt that 2015 was Europe's annus horribilis. Both the projects of the European Union and of European liberal democracy were challenged in ways we have not seen before. The real question for the coming year(s) is: was 2015 just a freak year, soon to be forgotten, or a transformative year, shaping European politics for years to come? Whatever the answer to that question will be, 2015 was the year that everyone could see that the European emperor is not (not any longer) wearing clothes. Worse, the emperor didn't even deny that he was naked!"
EU emerges relatively unscathed from 2015
The European Union has emerged from the crisis year 2015 in surprisingly good shape, the weekly paper Kapital observes: "The EU is struggling. It is battling the consequences of several crises, starting with the Greek bankruptcy earlier on in the year, then the Ukraine crisis and now the refugee crisis. And with the UK's threats to leave the EU unless it changes we get the feeling a major storm is brewing. … But there is a ray of hope. The worst predictions for last year didn't come true. Putin didn't send tanks into the Baltic states, the EU didn't collapse in the face of the Greek crisis and it will most likely master many other crises yet to come. … The events that are rocking the world will also create new bonds and contexts. The world is undergoing a major transformation, and it has only just begun."
Ideological power struggle continues
The fight against the forces that aim to bring about the downfall of Europe must go on in the new year, the liberal daily Le Soir urges: "Europe faces unprecedented challenges at the dawn of 2016. It has been divided into two camps, which clearly articulate their respective positions. Who will win this ideological tug of war, Merkel or Orbán, Jean-Claude Juncker or Marine Le Pen? Add to that an American election campaign that in the coming months will see Donald Trump emerge as an ally of the European Orbáns. In 2015 we experienced the unimaginable. … Will 2016 be the year when we get the better of it - while remaining who we are?"
Will France remain true to its values?
France is not as courageous in the face of the terrorist threat at the end of 2015 as it was at the start of the year, the communist daily L'Humanité comments: "In January the republic and its values were largely able to face up to xenophobia and the excessive desire for security. In November the state of emergency was abused to install a spiral of distrust and the return of arbitrariness. The dangerous and futile proposal to withdraw the nationality of those with dual citizenship was used as a supposed weapon to fight the threat of terrorism. This continual backward slide has resulted in a very different climate, and there has been a major shift to the right in public debate. In this context it is clear how important it is to reject the [government's plan to enshrine the] state of emergency in the constitution."
Why the Germans are helping refugees now
The Germans surprised themselves and the world in 2015 with their openness on the refugee issue, the public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk comments, and speculates about the country's motives: "The we-feeling of a cosmopolitan society which was still articulating itself as a youthful summertime feeling [during the Fifa World Cup] in 2006 became the ethical demonstration of a mature sense of citizenship in the summer of 2015. The movement to help and welcome refugees this year distinguished itself in that it did not remain confined to distinct milieus or politically definable circles. The impulse to put on a smile and get out and help extended far beyond church communities, humanitarian organisations and human rights groups. ... The fact that this year a majority of Germans reacted to the refugee crisis so differently [than in the 1990s] is not least an expression of an oft-unspoken but nevertheless deeply felt feeling of having much to be thankful for over the course of the postwar era."
Row over refugee quotas was superfluous
A lot of time has been wasted as a result of the dispute between Eastern and Western Europe over the refugee crisis, the liberal daily Sme notes: "Eastern Europe was right in many respects on the refugee issue, but it communicated its views poorly. Distributing refugees through quotas doesn't work. Conversely the general support shown at the end of the year in the EU for a European border guard makes sense. It is necessary to maintain Schengen. The pressure of reality has forced Germany and other EU countries to change their stance. It's just a pity that Europe wasted months with unnecessary quarrelling over the quotas. The extreme views of [Hungarian Prime Minister] Viktor Orbán, [Slovakian Prime Minister] Robert Fico and [Czech President] Miloš Zeman, who couldn't give a fig about people who needed help, quite rightly found no sympathy in Western Europe."
Barbed wire fences make a comeback
Hardly any issue stirred up as much emotion in 2015 as the fences that are being erected in the middle of Europe, the liberal daily Jutarnji list notes: "Barbed wire criss-crosses our valleys and meadows, dividing part of the world that calls itself free. ... If barbed wire had fulfilled the same goal in 1989 as today, the young communist [and current Hungarian prime minister] Orbán and the youth [and current Slovenian prime minister] Cerar would have remained behind the fence. They would have stood on the other side and gazed at the 'technical barrier' that separated them from the wonders of the West, and stammered one unpleasant phrase after the next. ... Luckily people in the Europe of 1989 knew what barbed wire is good for: cattle farming in Ohio. It would be good if that were still true today."
Berlin is Europe's only centre of power
Germany emerged from 2015, a difficult year for Europe, as the continent's only decisive power, the left-leaning daily Právo writes: "What with its economic woes and the threat to its domestic security, France's hands are tied. As for Britain, it's not even sure if it will stay in the EU. Consequently Germany is the only power respected by Washington on the one hand and Beijing and Moscow on the other. Certainly, Berlin knows that without the EU it would only be a second-rate player. So it's in its interest to maintain the project of European integration at any cost, no matter how expensive, painful and rife with conflict this may be. However Merkel's political fate and the conflict over refugees which is dividing Europe will be decided in Syria. Russia now influences European security through Syria, and cooperating with Moscow is like eating a sour apple. But the chancellor has no choice but to take a bite."
Orbán's strategy has worked perfectly
The title of "Most Successful Politician in 2015" goes to Hungary's head of government Viktor Orbán, remarks the centre-left daily Der Standard with bitterness: "Orbán has once again demonstrated his political tact. In the global refugee crisis he began a massive PR campaign playing on fears and hostility vis-à-vis Muslim refugees in June 2015. Hungary registered a total of 449,199 people who crossed its border illegally in 2015, but thanks to the construction of fences, the use of tear gas against crowds of refugees and rapid onward transport to Austria and Croatia the numbers went down from 141,858 September to 1,729 in November. … Eighty-seven percent of Hungarians (including author György Konrád!) support the government's line of action. … Orbán's plan has worked perfectly also on the international stage. He can rightly claim that those states governed by social democratic politicians like Slovakia and the Czech Republic and above all Kaczyński's Poland see him as a pioneer and role model."
Kaczyński proves his worth as a strategist
Jaroslav Kaczyński, the leader of the national conservative ruling PiS party, has demonstrated the best tactical skills among Poland's politicians, the conservative daily Rzeczpospolita writes: "When he made the almost unknown Andrzej Duda the party's presidential candidate in November 2014 rather than running for president himself against rival candidate Bronisław Komorowski, many people thought he believed the battle for that post was already lost. But then, just a few months later, the young, moderate and capable candidate turned out to be an absolute hit. And Beata Szydło, who as the PiS candidate for prime minister won a victory that made the formation of a government without a coalition partner possible for the first time since Poland became a democracy, turned out to be just as good a choice. Kaczyński knows his weaknesses and took a back seat in public. In doing so he has demonstrated that he is an excellent strategist."
The worst year for the euro
The Greek crisis made 2015 the most bitter since the start of the Eurozone, the conservative daily Corriere della Sera concludes: "On the evening of July 5 the worst chapter in the history of the Eurozone seemed to have been written. The majority of Greeks voted in a referendum against the bailout package the EU had put together in exchange for reforms. Had Alexis Tsipras respected the results Athens' exit from the euro club would have been inevitable. … Politically, 2015 was therefore the worst year ever for the Eurozone, a year in which the exit of a member was put on the cards and only narrowly avoided. What's more, the victory, if one wishes to describe it as such, is anything but conclusive. Because a section of the voters in Europe is still suffering from the after-effects of the crisis and the great recession and refuses to acknowledge the results of the reforms imposed by the EU as achievements."
Erosion of the traditional parties
The year now coming to an end also stood for the erosion of the traditional parties, observes the liberal daily Jornal de Notícias: "It was a year full of profound changes all over Europe: while the left-wing parties, whose maximum impact was felt in Greece, as well as the far right, which scored record results in France, grew stronger, in 2015 we witnessed the implosion of Europe's traditional centre parties. There were many reasons for this: from economic downturn to numerous corruption scandals and the existence of increasingly radical and global challenges like terrorism and huge waves of migration. But also the lack of trust in the political decision makers deserves mention. … One is left with the feeling that new negotiation options are needed that create more space for voter participation."
Turkish media and judiciary torpedoed
Turkey's AKP government continued its authoritarian course in 2015, further toughening its course after its victory in the elections on November 1, the anti-government daily Today's Zaman laments: "This has been the year when two main pillars that kept Turkey's story a hopeful one - despite everything - namely, the judiciary and the media, have been torpedoed, penetrated, manipulated, sieged and, to a great deal subordinated, by a full-scale, power-hungry force. After a ruthless and incredible engineering of the institutional genetics of these two pillars, there is no longer any sense of trust in the law, and the public perception of reality is, with the media now toothless and frightened, deeply distorted. Turkey at the end of 2015 is no longer able to distinguish between right and wrong, between what is moral and immoral."
Big victories for international diplomacy
This year has seen many diplomatic successes that haven't been given the attention they deserve, writes the centre-left daily Tages-Anzeiger, citing the resolution of the crisis in Ukraine, the detente of the nuclear dispute with Iran and the climate talks in Paris as examples: "Diplomacy consists not only in the proverbial diplomatic words but always deals in threats and rewards - like the sanctions against Russia and Iran. In Paris a compromise was achieved not just through the wording of the agreement but also by paying billions to the poorer countries. Towards the end of the year the diplomatic successes in the negotiations with Iran had a positive impact on other areas of conflict: in Libya a peace agreement was signed. A new negotiation group comprising numerous states including Russia, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the US emerged. The fact that talks are taking place at all is already progress. This year has shown how much sense it makes to talk to each other."
COP21 must mark a turning point in history
At the COP21 global climate talks in Paris more than 200 countries agreed in mid-December to limit greenhouse gas emissions. This year's unusually warm weather should serve as a warning to stick to the decisions, the centre-left daily El País admonishes: "If these agreements are adhered to COP21 will mark a historical turning point for mankind. If not, it will become just one more of the many summits that have made a lot of noise but achieved little. … This has been the hottest year since the recording of weather statistics began, with 2015 breaking the record of 2014. The problem is that that record too may soon be broken, with experts predicting that the planet's average temperature will be even warmer than this year's. Do we need any more signs that we urgently need to take action?"