The Year 2017: The Nation-State on Top of the Agenda

The Internet is teeming with comments about the political plans of the Facebook’s owner. Apparently, Mark Zuckerberg is gearing up for the 2020 presidential campaign. He will be 36 then and to compete for the US presidency you have to be 35 or older. He will not run out of money, for his fortune is estimated at $52 billion. The trail is being blazed for him by another billionaire, Donald Trump, who will be installed in the White House on January 21. This will be the greatest challenge for the world in 2017. The 70-year-old businessman is not only a Republican outsider without political experience (he has not held any public office yet), but above all he has a strong, narcissistic personality, which will not bend easily to the restraints imposed by the system and by diplomatic conventions.

Trump is a serious challenge for Europe, but there are other problems. The EU has not yet emerged from the economic crisis and the turmoil in the eurozone, and it is already struggling with the migration crisis: the number of illegal arrivals grew tenfold from around 100,000 in 2014 to over 1 million in 2015. Last year it was brought down to around 300,000, but it is not the end of the matter yet. Especially since the contract with Turkey which really helped to seal off the south-eastern stretch of the EU border may be dissolved, because both parties are disappointed with each other.

The European Union will also have to deal with Brexit this year—after last year’s referendum, the United Kingdom will start the procedure of leaving the community this spring, previously never used. At the same time, 2017 means three election campaigns in three most senior and important EU countries: Holland, France, and Germany. Their result may fundamentally change the balance of power within the community and thus strongly influence its future. For it is difficult to imagine any further development of the European project without French-German cooperation, and this will be hard if the populists win.

Taming the growing power of populism is not the only dilemma for Europe. Another one is what to do with Russia, which seems to ignore the West. Despite that, some countries would like to go back to friendly relations, as they are not discouraged by the annexation of the Crimea nor by the power politics practiced by President Putin. So in 2017 the sanctions will probably be lifted and the West will try to strike a deal with Russia: peace in Syria in exchange for stability in Ukraine on Russian terms. And a joint action to kill off the Islamic State, because it organizes terrorist attacks in Western Europe and may spread them to the rest of the continent. The deciding voice in any such deal will belong to the Americans, whose pragmatic president, not hiding his pro-Russian sympathies, very much prefers a business-like approach to the world order.

Another crack in the EU unity is Central and Eastern Europe, strengthened by the Hungarian-Polish partnership and the activity under the V4 (Visegrad Group). What the four member countries share is mostly their hostility towards receiving immigrants, but their “flexible solidarity” incites in Germans or Italians a willingness to respond in kind in matters which are crucial for the V4, such as development funds. It is worth remembering that Poland still is their greatest beneficiary. At the same time, for more than a year it has been in dispute with its European partners about the democratic standards of the rule of law.

A similar approach to Brussels is presented by Hungary. The year 2017 will be a test of intentions of the Visegrad Group countries towards the EU and of the wider East-West relations. There is a chance of bringing together the 27 member states around a few matters crucial for all, especially security, but it may also turn out that preserving the unity among all EU members is desired by only a small number of countries.

In 2017, the European Union will try to plan its future in a situation where many lines of division have been discovered. The anniversary summit in Rome will sum up the 60 years of EU’s existence and draw a roadmap for reform. The Euroskeptics, increasingly numerous in recent years, do not believe that major changes are possible and predict the “decay” of the project, looking for alternatives. The Eurorealists seek a “grand idea” in the name of which striking compromises would again be possible. And finally, the shrinking number of Euroenthusiasts call for using the crises haunting the “old continent” as a stepping stone towards creating a federation or confederation, with a strong government and a larger common budget (today amounting to just 1% of EU’s GDP, while in Switzerland it is 12% and in the US about 21%). The starting year will not bring definite decisions, but it may point the way. It is still quite a lot in such a complex situation.

The most likely scenario is the strengthening of the role and position of nation states in Europe. It is their crisscrossing interests that will determine the future. At the same time, the increasingly powerful populism will strengthen such anti-systemic groupings as the Italian Five Star Movement. This may lead to deeper constitutional changes or to anarchy. If in 2020 Mark Zuckerberg really runs for the American presidency, it will be a signal that even for the creator of Facebook the community of people in real life is more important than the online community.

Małgorzata Bonikowska

Małgorzata Bonikowska is the President of the Centre for International Relations and THINKTANK centre, publisher of THINKTANK journal. She is a political scientist, expert in European Studies and the EU, associate profesor in international relations, manager, consultant, and author of over 300 publications.

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