EU 2019 – Make it or brake it

Brexit, European elections, new EU Commission: 2019 will be a year of radical change for Europe – or of a hard break. The outcome is still open; the fog is not likely to clear until spring. Until then, the EU will try to spread some calculated optimism.

On the forefront is, as always,  Jean-Claude Juncker. According to the president of the Commission,  the European Union has every reason to look optimistically into the new year.

His “Commission of the last chance” has done a good job, Juncker said after the summit meeting in December. The EU is stronger today than it was five years ago, and citizens’ confidence is slowly returning.

As proof, the EU Commission presented the latest “Eurobarometer” survey. It shows not only growing support for the EU – but also that many citizens place more trust in the European institutions than in their own government.

At 42 percent, the trust bonus for the EU is higher than for national governments and parliaments (32 percent). In addition, more citizens allegedly believe that their vote counts in the EU.

But that’s where the good news ends. Juncker himself takes a very critical view of the incoming EU presidency, which Romania will take over from Austria on 1 January. The country is indeed “technically well prepared”, the Luxembourger said.

“But I believe that the government in Bucharest has not yet fully understood what it means to preside over the EU countries,” he added.

In two weeks the first shock threatens

Romania, of all countries, has the delicate task of leading Europe through the British withdrawal from the EU on 29 March 2019 – a historic, unprecedented and hardly predictable event.

Already in the third week of January the first Brexit shock threatens: Prime Minister May then wants to present the controversial EU withdrawal agreement for ratification in the British parliament. A majority is anything but certain.

If the divorce treaty fails, this can lead to unpredictable chain reactions. From a second Brexit referendum to new elections, anything seems possible.

Even a “hard”, unregulated Brexit can then no longer be ruled out. The government in London has already had millions of ferries rented to prepare for emergencies.

This would be the worst case scenario for the EU. Chaos at ports and airports would shake the trust that had been painstakingly regained – and overshadow the European elections at the end of May.

Yet this election is already not under a good star. In Brussels there is talk of a “choice of fate”, gloomy scenarios are making the rounds.

Will Brussels become ungovernable?

The European Parliament not only expects the two largest formations – the conservative EPP and the social democratic S&D – to lose the majority and have to look for new partners.

Some analysts even predict that EU opponents could conquer up to 30 percent of the seats. Such a result would not only reduce the chances of the “Spitzenkandidaten” Weber (EPP) and Timmermans (S&D) to inherit Juncker.

It could even make Brussels ungovernable. Italian Lega leader Salvini is already dreaming of an alliance of the right to unhinge the EU.

Nobody knows how the heads of state and government would react to such an electoral debacle. The only thing that is clear is that they have the responsibility to keep the EU on course after the election.

Chancellor Merkel and France’s Macron have so far not even agreed on how to proceed. Merkel wants to make Weber the next head of the commission, Macron is against the whole system of the “Spitzenkandidaten”.

At the last European elections in 2014, it took until mid-July for the heads of state to accept the then top candidate Juncker and make him Commission President. This time the dispute could drag on into the autumn.

In 2019 not only the top position of the EU Commission has to be filled again. Successors are also being sought for Draghi as head of the European Central Bank and for Tusk, the President of the EU Council.

So far, these personnel issues have always been solved in a “package”, whereby attention has been paid to party proportionality. Will this still be possible after the European elections – or will the European party families be just as weakened as the traditional  parties in France or Germany? This, too, is one of the open questions in the new year.

And then a power struggle?

At the same time, the EU faces the challenge of finding a new balance with only 27 members – without Great Britain. Germany and France are being challenged by the Hanseatic League.

Will Merkel and Macron pull in the same direction, will they fight for power in the shrinking EU – or will everything be completely different, because the British will change their minds and stay in the Union?

There has never been so much uncertainty; it will probably not be until spring that the fog lifts. Until then, 2019 will be a year of upheaval – or of a hard break, perhaps even of desintegration…

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