AFRICANGLOBE – After a difficult 2014, the countries of the European Union shouldn’t expect relief in the new year. Another challenging 12 months lie ahead as they face external threats, internal dissent and an economy that’s going nowhere.
Here’s a glance at what to look out for in 2015:
The Russian leader has his back against the wall as tumbling oil prices and international sanctions send Russia’s economy into a tailspin.
At their year-end summit, EU leaders decided to keep up the pressure, adding new trade and investment restrictions on Russian-occupied Crimea and insisting they won’t relax wider sanctions.
Putin can hardly afford to retaliate by cutting off oil and gas supplies through the winter as once feared, but Western security officials are concerned the wounded Russian bear could lash out militarily.
With his backing eroded by the economic woes, Putin could try to whip up nationalist support through more armed adventures either by pushing forward Russian advances in Ukraine or looking elsewhere. Moldova and Georgia are vulnerable. Putin could also gamble on a direct confrontation with NATO by unleashing Crimea-style “hybrid warfare” to undermine the Baltic States.
Putin’s announcement this month that he’ll increase Russia’s defense budget to $50 billion next year, add 50 new intercontinental ballistic missiles to Russia’s nuclear arsenal, and build new bases in the Arctic was hardly reassuring.
Falling oil prices may be good news for motorists and those enjoying some schadenfreude at Putin’s expense, but they’re not helping the euro zone’s dead-in-the-water economy.
Deflation is the big danger facing the currency bloc in 2015. Falling prices would discourage business and trigger a vicious circle of disinvestment and job losses.
Some economists worry deflation will push the euro zone into “secular stagnation” that would halt meaningful growth for generations.
Inflation in the 18-nation euro zone (Lithuania is set to become the 19th member on Jan. 1) hit a five-year low of 0.3 percent in November — dangerously below the 2 percent optimum level set by the European Central Bank.
Greece and Spain already registered negative inflation rates across the year. The ECB’s Vice President Vitor Constancio warned last weekend that the entire euro zone was set to follow them in 2015. “We now expect a negative inflation rate in the coming months, and that is something every central bank has to look at very closely,” he told the German business weekly WirtschaftsWoche.
Europe’s central bank thinks it has an antidote — pumping money into the economy by buying up government bonds, a process known as quantitative easing (QE), which has been used successfully by central banks in Britain, Japan and the United States. Germany, however, is unconvinced. It fears QE will bring economic overheating and discourage governments from pushing through reforms needed to make economies more competitive.
Expect a power struggle between the government in Berlin and the Frankfurt-based ECB early in 2015.
3. Extreme politics
Europe’s voters are in a cantankerous mood after years of economic crisis.
Many in the continent’s south want an end to austerity that’s been blamed for falling living standards and high unemployment. In the north, they grumble about subsidizing spendthrift southerners who refuse to knock their economies into shape. Almost everywhere, the response is a growing rejection of established politics and flirtation with extremes on the left or right. That risks turning into a lasting relationship next year.
Elections in 2015 could see far-left parties winning in Greece and Spain, if current polls are to be believed.
Greece’s Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) is hoping to provoke snap elections early next year. Despite the party’s recent more conciliatory tone, markets fear a SYRIZA victory could reverse years of austerity designed to bring down record debt, leading to a default that would force the country out of the euro zone.
Spain’s new We Can party (Podemos), which has adopted a similar anti-austerity line, is topping polls ahead of general elections that must be held over the next 12 months.
Although Portugal hasn’t seen the emergence of new radical parties, the mainstream opposition Socialist Party, which is tipped to win elections due by October, has promised to overturn austerity policies and declined to rule out a government alliance with the country’s old-school Communists.
In Europe’s north, populist right-wing parties in Finland and Sweden may actually see support drop in elections next year, but they have established themselves firmly on the political scene, tempting centrist parties to assimilate their anti-immigration and euro-sceptic lines.
Britain’s parliamentary election in May promises to be a close-run race between the governing Conservatives and center-left Labor Party. Still, polls show the nationalist UK Independence Party tripling its vote to finish third. Under pressure from UKIP, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged to hold a referendum on a British exit from the EU if he’s re-elected.
Although France and Italy don’t have elections scheduled next year, radical-right parties inspired by Putin’s authoritarian nationalism in Russia are riding high in the polls on a wave of voter dissatisfaction with austerity, immigration and concerns over the loss of national sovereignty.
Parties on the radical left and euro-sceptic right have made gains even in Germany, until recently a bastion of political stability. In the last weeks of 2014, the political mainstream has been increasingly spooked by weekly mass rallies against immigration in Dresden and other cities under the banner of “patriotic Europeans against Islamization.” A record 17,000 turned up for their march through the eastern city on Monday night even though Justice Minister Heiko Maas denounced the group as “a disgrace to Germany.”
4. Death In The Med
Anti-immigration sentiment is being fueled by the perception that Europe risks being swamped with waves of migrants fleeing carnage beyond the continent’s southern and eastern borders.
Conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Somalia, Eritrea and much of West Africa’s Sahel region have left millions of people desperate to escape to safety in Europe.
The United Nation’s refugee agency (UNHCR) says asylum requests in Europe during the first half of 2014 topped 260,000, up 24 percent from the same period last year.
Although most slip in overland or by plane, the refugees’ plight has been symbolized by boat people risking a crossing of the Mediterranean, the world’s most dangerous migration route.
The UNHCR says 87,000 reached Italy after making the perilous trip during the first seven months of this year. More than 3,000 died in the attempt.
More tragic mass drownings are likely in 2015. An Italian maritime mission that rescued more than 100,000 has been wound down, replaced by a joint EU operation with a tighter remit and less funding. Britain has refused to participate, saying hope of rescue encourages more refugees to attempt the journey.
With the resurgent far-right whipping up public concerns, European governments are tightening asylum procedures to limit migration. They’re also engaged in an unsightly dispute over how to share out the influx of migrants among them.
But even the efforts of the most generous European countries such as Sweden are dwarfed by front-line nations like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, which have taken in huge numbers of Syrian and Iraqi refugees.
With no end in sight to war in the Middle East and Africa — not to mention the risk that a worsening of the Ukraine conflict will create a new refugee wave — Europe will have to balance humanitarian pressure to do more with the dangers of further boosting anti-immigration sentiment and support for the far right.
5. Lone Wolves
Over the past two years, European security officials have offered reassurances that citizens in the EU had a greater chance of being killed by bee stings than terrorists. Nevertheless, police and intelligence specialists are worried that 2015 will see a sharp increase in the “lone wolf” attacks carried out or inspired by fighters from the self-proclaimed Islamic State or other Middle East radical groups.
“The lone wolf is very successful compared to others … that’s the trend that we see now,” Europol’s director of operations Will van Gemert told reporters in November. “It’s the most difficult danger, to be honest.”
With IS facing battlefield reverses in Syria and Iraq, the danger that their European-origin fighters will return home with bloodthirsty intent is growing.
Recent deadly attacks in Ottawa and Sydney have shown that even untrained amateurs can cause mayhem in Western countries, and there are concerns that hardened fighters returning from the Middle East will pose a still-greater danger.
Police say the French suspect in a gun attack that killed four people in Brussels’ Jewish Museum last May had spent a year with radicals in Syria. They worry that could become a precedent for more returnee terror.
Last week, the French authorities ordered extra troops onto the streets for patrols to reassure citizens after pre-Christmas attacks in three cities. In one, an assailant shouting “God is great!” in Arabic was shot after a knife attack on police officers; in two other incidents men drove cars into crowds of shoppers. The government says the incidents were unconnected and that the two vehicle drivers were mentally unstable.
Whatever the perpetuators’ motives, the attacks have underscored European worries as 2015 approaches.
By: Paul Ames