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The Year Ahead in Europe

2015 proved to be a turbulent year for Europe, as the continent was faced with a series of unexpected crises amid political discontent with the status quo in Brussels. Two deadly terrorist attacks in Paris bookended 2015, stoking populist fears and driving opposition to Angela Merkel’s open-door refugee policy. Pushback against the longstanding Schengen free-travel agreement and British threats to leave the EU have also frayed European solidarity at a time when it is needed more than ever.

None of these challenges will dissipate in 2016. In fact, the new year may prove even more contentious. Upcoming elections, referendums, and long-term political trends will do much to shape the future of Europe in the coming year. American leadership will also play a decisive role: on issues from NATO enlargement to the UK’s membership in the EU, a strong American commitment to a united Europe can help to undergird peace and stability.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, widely seen as Europe’s de facto leader, will face growing pressure from opponents at home and across the EU. Already, Merkel’s stance on refugees has cost her, with her approval rating dropping to a four-year low in November 2015. A series of local German elections in March will provide a telling indicator of the electorate’s stance toward Merkel. Outside of Germany, meanwhile, populist parties from France’s National Front to Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) have exploited resentment against Merkel’s policies to newfound popularity.

Europe will host a number of elections in 2016 which may serve as a bellwether for change. Austria’s presidential elections in April will test the mettle of the Freedom Party of Austria, a far-right, anti-immigrant party which made striking gains in September’s regional elections. While most of the year’s elections are expected to be rather predictable, with mainstream social democrats favored in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Lithuania, even marginal gains by far-right parties will continue to grab attention.

The Polish question will be a defining one in 2016, as European leaders debate an appropriate response to the new government’s rightward swing. Critics of the new government have accused it of using legal maneuvers to undermine the independence of the constitutional court and politicize the national media, although its defenders argue that the party is acting within its democratic mandate. The European Commission could vote to sanction Poland under Article 7 of the EU Treaty, thus suspending Poland’s EU voting rights. Such a move would face strong opposition from Hungary, Germany and other states hesitant to further inflame tensions with Poland.

Also at stake in 2016 is the United Kingdom’s relationship with the EU. Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to hold a referendum on EU membership by the end of 2017. This year, he will use that looming deadline to favorably renegotiate the terms of the UK’s membership. At the February summit in Brussels and the March meeting of the European Council, Cameron will reiterate his demands to prevent currency discrimination against the UK, and argue for the right to restrict welfare entitlements for migrants. A successful renegotiation could keep Britain in the EU, but it may set a precedent for other states to selectively seek favorable terms from Brussels. Given the historic special relationship between the U.S. and UK, American diplomacy could influence Cameron to remain in the union.

Europe’s solidarity will also be tested in relation to Russia. So far, the EU has collectively agreed to maintain broad economic sanctions against Moscow for its aggression in Ukraine, extending them by six months in December. But when the sanctions come up for renewal again in June, the consensus may not hold.  Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy voiced skepticism about the sanctions last time, and the desire to solicit Russian cooperation on lucrative energy deals, including the proposed Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, may undermine support for sanctions. This outcome would send an ominous signal to Ukraine and would only further strain the East-West divide, as the Baltic States and Poland fear Russia’s intent and have sought an enhanced NATO presence on their territory. Once again, the U.S. could play a key role on both issues, urging skeptics of sanctions to stay the course while reassuring the Baltics and Poland that their security guarantees will hold.

For all the challenges and uncertainties that await Europe in 2016, there are glimmers of hope. After receiving an official invitation last year, Montenegro will continue its accession to NATO, which may be finalized by the July summit in Warsaw. This would be the alliance’s first expansion since 2009, and could open the door for further enlargement to states like Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. On the economic front, analysts expect European stocks to soar in 2016, with the euro-zone set to enjoy a modestly positive growth trajectory barring any drastic political changes.

2015 proved that Europe’s biggest headlines could not always be seen from afar. Still, American vigilance and tough-minded diplomacy can go a long way toward strengthening the European order, and thus mitigating the challenges that Europe will face in the year to come.

Authored by Sally Painter, Co-founder and Chief Operating Officer, Blue Star Strategies. The firm is a member of the EACC New York.