Finally, the sun is shining! After a prolonged period of heavy rainfall and cold temperatures, Brussels can enjoy some heat and necessary vitamin D from the sun rays. Its parks are full, the non-airconditioned public transport empty, and the numerous rooftop bars can compensate their revenues after a shitty summer.
Weather circumstances apart, Brussels is depressed. The city lies on its back after the March 22 terrorist attacks, the calamitous introduction of the pedestrian zone of Brussels (in terms of governance failure) and continuous police lockdowns. Housing prices in the city centre have collapsed, even not-so-nearby Bruges has seen an implosion of visitor numbers with 25 percent.
In the EU quarters, the mood is also sombre. British friends were crying after the 23 June Brexit referendum ended with a victory for the Leave campaign. Those Brits working at the EU institutions could lose their jobs and social security in the years to come. One UK friend already became Belgian, others will follow. Political London is in disarray, while the 27 remaining EU member states demand clarity as soon as possible on when Great Britain actually wants to leave the club, so that we can move on.
Cold Turkey, fortress Hungary
The continuing ‘migration crisis’ (better known as refugee crisis) also causes profound headaches. Though the influx of refugees from Turkey into Greece (hence, Europe) seems to have lowered considerably to ‘just’ 165000 refugees this year, the deal with Turkey is shaky and controversial and might break up over the political fallout after the failed coup in Turkey of July. Several governments have already indicated that EU accession talks with Turkey should be halted altogether, while one Turkish ambassador has spoken out the expectation to join the European Union in 2023 and while president Erdogan is demanding visa-free travel for his citizens. Oh yes, and Turkey invaded Syria this week, apparently with the support of the Americans.
Not surprisingly, migrant routes via the Mediterranean Sea towards Italy have become a lot busier – though the share of Syrian migrants is low in these routes (I wonder where they are going now). The Red Cross already saved tens of thousands of people, but over 3000 have died making the crossing. European nations seem to have little empathy for the refugees, as the ‘relocation scheme’ as instigated by the European Commission is failing. Hungary even wants to build a second fence in the south of the country to turn itself into a fortress.
Open vacancy: leadership
You know why the European Union is not a superstate? Every time there are elections in one of the member states, its decision making abilities seem to be put on standby.
So brace for next year. In 2017 the key member states Germany, France and the Netherlands have general elections – very possibly leading to a new leader and/or a change of political direction of the new government. Will Merkel go on, now that her popularity is waning and she might get into a scenario of one of her predecessors, Helmut Kohl who didn’t want to give up? How does Hollande fare against Le Pen and Sarkozy, especially if a fourth big terrorist attack strikes France? How much connection can Rutte hold with the disgruntled Dutch voters (still one of the happiest nations on the planet)?
It is no wonder that the new UK prime minister, Theresa May, has stated that she only wants to start the Leave-from-the-EU-negotiations after those elections. According to this very fascinating analysis of the Brexit process, it could be 2025 (!) when the UK is fully out of the EU and a satisfying trade deal has come into its membership place.
To take away unrest amongst voters, businesses and markets, EU leaders have gathered several times since the Brexit disaster to charter the way forward. This week Merkel, Hollande and Renzi came together on an aircraft carrier near Naples, next to the island Ventotene where several intellectuals drafted a manifesto on a united Europe during the Second World War. But there photo-opps were more about showing unity and not about taking leadership – for instance about what an EU without the UK should look like or how to improve economic governance of the eurozone – a governance that is now in a situation of silent death.
When even one of the most outspoken politicians on European integration, Guy Verhofstadt, calls his newest book/pamphlet ‘Europe’s disease’, you know why Brussels is in a sombre mood.
It doesn’t help that the staunchest defender of the project, the Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, keeps alienating himself from citizens and member states. After predicting earlier this year that a negative outcome of the Dutch Ukraine referendum of April would throw Europe into a crisis (it didn’t), he stated this week that national borders ‘are the worst invention ever’ As a historian, I would tend to agree with him, as there is a direct line between the creation of the nation states in Europe in the 19th century and the two world wars in the 20th century. But these messages will backfire, and they do backfire.
So in case you are interested in leadership in Europe, please apply now!