Summer holiday season on the Old Continent is slowly approaching and before the well-paid ‘Eurocrats’ empty the glass buildings in central Brussels, it is a good time to reflect on the major developments in the first half of 2015 and also contemplate about things we would like to change in the remaining six months and beyond. The first six month of this year were in many ways significant, challenging, and a ground-breaking for most of the world.
We have witnessed how neighbouring Ukraine was struggling with the separatist rebels in the eastern part of the country while still reeling from the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea by Russia. And we have also witnessed a number of airplane crashes, the still unfolding ISIS-led conflict in the Middle East and the (overall) plummeting oil prices. For the European Union, the first two quarters of 2015 were not less demanding. Here is a list of the most significant events (not necessarily in order of importance) that shaped not only the European Union itself but also the outside world.
- Crisis in Ukraine and the rise of the Kremlin: The big bear woke up
The crisis that actually emerged already as early as in November 2013 took all by surprise. Following the Euromaidan and the Ukraine-wide debate on whether to lean more eastwards or westwards ended up in the de-facto annexation of Crimea by Putin’s Russia. This naturally triggered an immediate response from the EU and the United States and the West-East crisis that ensued has had far-reaching implications in many areas.
Russia, which was punished for its military incursions into Ukraine’s territory by a series of sanctions imposed by the EU and U.S., suffered immensely and its currency started to show the first symptoms of a crisis towards the end of 2014. Moscow retaliated soon after – its ban on imports of fruits and vegetables has badly hit some EU countries as demonstrated particularly by Poland’s “apple crisis”.
The Ukrainian crisis moreover re-opened the old-new debate on the sustainability and trustworthiness of EU-Russia energy ties. The struggle to diversify energy portfolio began anew on both sides. While the EU launched talks aiming at setting up a EU-wide Energy Union, Russia abandoned its South Stream project and began to look for friends in Asia, with its energy deal with China being among the biggest in the world.
As a result of the conflict, the overall mood and perceptions about Putin’s Russia have taken a sharp downturn. Russian President, who refused to investigate the shooting down of a civilian airliner, has come to be seen as a number one enemy for many Europeans. It is safe to say that West-Russia relations have now probably reached their lowest point since the end of the Cold War.
- Rise of far-right parties: Islamism, anti-Semitism and other phobias
One of the most worrying internal developments in the EU has certainly been the rise of far-right parties and suspicious groupings promoting harmful ‘isms’. This phenomenon seems to be the result of two problems that will be presented next week in the 2nd part of this article – migratory pressures and a challenging economic situation.
In response to the influx of migrants to the EU mostly from North African and conflict-struck Middle Eastern countries as much as due to the rise of Islamism worldwide, the old continent has become more Islamophobic but at the same time also more anti-Semitic. Whereas Islamophobia is mostly a result of the fast growing Muslim population in Europe, anti-Semitism has been predominantly triggered by the response of the European Muslim population to the resumption of the Arab-Israeli conflict last summer.
All these negatives sentiments have translated into a worrying popularity of far-right parties across Europe. In the EU-wide election to the European Parliament last year, European voters lurched towards the political fringes. Thus, the results of the election showed gains for populist and neo-Nazi parties marking a major defeat for mainstream European politics. In France, for instance, anti-immigrant Front National topped a nationwide poll for the first time in the party’s history.
As Pope Francis said during his landmark speech to the EU Parliament in late 2014, which came more than 25 years after a similar speech by Pope John Paul II., the pivotal concept in the process of rebuilding Europe after the Second World War was dignity. However, he pointed out that “dignity is beginning to disappear amidst manifold instances of violence and discrimination that took place throughout the EU last year”.
It is pity that we, Europeans, begin to forget that there will be no dignity for Europe without the possibility of freely expressing one’s thought or professing one’s religious faith. At the same time, there can also be no dignity for Europe without the ability to punish those who refute these basic principles upon which unified Europe is built. We shall not forget that the European Union has been and is destined to be ‘United in Diversity’.