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Migrant Crisis, Populist Politics, Russian Moves Set To Haunt EU In 2016

A woman and her child prepare to board a train heading to Serbia after crossing the Greek-Macedonian border on November 12, 2015.
A woman and her child prepare to board a train heading to Serbia after crossing the Greek-Macedonian border on November 12, 2015.

More than 25 years after the Berlin Wall crumbled, barriers were being erected across Europe in 2015 amidst a wave of migrants the likes of which the continent has not seen since World War II, shaking the foundations of the 28-nation bloc and raising questions about its very viability.

In 2016, Brussels will not only struggle to figure out how to handle the thousands of migrants and refugees fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. It will also grapple with related issues, such as whether to scrap passport-free travel across most of Europe. Calls for that step only grew louder after Islamic State militants killed 130 people in Paris on November 13.

Inside the bloc, Brussels will watch warily to see if Britain goes ahead in 2016 with a referendum on whether to leave the bloc. A British exit -- or “Brexit” -- would mean the loss of the EU’s second biggest economy. On the other edge of the continent, the lure of doing business with Russia -- a market of nearly 150 million consumers and the EU’s third-biggest trading partner -- could lead to a showdown over whether to scrap sanctions imposed on Moscow over its interference in Ukraine.

RFE/RL looks at five crucial challenges Brussels will grapple with in the upcoming year.


The migrant crisis will not go away in 2016. The European Commission in November estimated that 3 million refugees could arrive in the EU by the end of 2016. That’s three times the estimated 1 million migrants who arrived this year, mostly by sea via Greece and Italy. Looking again into its crystal ball, the commission doesn’t see the march of migrants into Europe slowing down before 2017.

The EU has been slow to react to what is arguably its biggest challenge ever, mainly due to a split on the issue -- largely along east-west lines. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, leading the anti-migrant camp, said in September that it was necessary to “defend our borders” in order to “keep Europe Christian.” Hungary has been on the main overland route to the EU’s Schengen zone of border-free travel for most of the migrants.

Orban’s government has responded by building a fence to shut the border -- and Macedonia, Austria, and Slovenia have also erected barriers along parts of their frontiers. In December, Hungary and Slovakia separately filed court challenges to one of the few concrete plans the EU has hatched -- distributing 120,000 migrants among EU states, although the number is only a fraction of the real number of migrants arriving over the year.

In 2016, officials in Brussels will face not only court battles, but the sobering reality that the quotas are woefully low. But convincing already skeptical leaders in Eastern Europe to accept higher quotas will require all the diplomatic skill of a Bismarck.

Meanwhile, with a 3 billion euro ($3.2 billion) deal and other incentives from Brussels in hand, Turkey will be the target of pressure to stem the flow of refugees from war-wracked Syria into the EU.

Ultimately, ending that influx means ending the conflict in Syria, according to Judy Dempsey, a senior associate at the Carnegie Europe think tank. While diplomatic efforts heated up in the second half of 2015, Russia’s air campaign complicated matters and the shoot-down of a Russian warplane by Turkey make a potential resolution all the more elusive.

“Is there going to be consensus among all the opposition parties and the various groups on how to end it? I mean, this is very problematic. I mean, what are Saudi Arabian interests? What are Iran's interests? What are Russia's interests? Europe's interests? America's interests?” Dempsey told RFE/RL. “The migrant crisis, unfortunately, is going to continue for some time."


The migrant crisis – in particular, Greece’s failure to control large numbers arriving by sea -- is putting the EU’s open-borders Schengen zone under strain. Calls to reform or even scrap Schengen, which allows passport-free travel among 22 EU members and four other countries, have grown louder since the Paris attacks. The suspected masterminds came from the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels, but Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said the attack was the consequence of the opening of Europe's borders, casting doubts on Schengen as well. "We are now confronted with a new threat level in Europe," he said in November.

And amid the tussle over internal borders, there’s also controversy over the EU’s external borders. France and Germany are pushing to give the EU border force, Frontex, more authority to patrol the EU’s frontiers.Media reports in early December said the French and German interior ministers were proposing a package of measures they said are needed to beef up protection of the external borders if Schengen is to stay in place. It also includes a proposal for a new European Border and Coastguard Agency which could be deployed without a request from the state in question.

Athens has been pressured by Brussels to invite in Frontex forces or face being effectively suspended from the Schengen zone. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, a leftist who has sparred with the EU over Greece’s debt crisis, has only agreed to the deployment in Greece of some Frontex border guards. Italy, another major initial destination for migrants crossing the Mediterranean, is also skeptical of EU calls for tougher frontier controls.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said on November 20 that EU interior and justice ministers had been tasked with drawing up a proposal for the Schengen zone to allow for “the systematic control” of all people entering through the bloc’s external borders.

However, with consensus so hard to come by, nations may be more tempted in 2016 to take policy decisions unilaterally.

"We…see increasing renationalization of foreign policy and security policy,” said Dempsey. “It was already happening over the past couple of years, but it's going to intensify. And the outlook for any kind of united stance inside the European Union on so many issues, I think it's going to become weaker not stronger over the next year.”

Rise Of The Right

Amid perceived EU flaccidity and growing anti-migrant sentiment, xenophobes, fascists and other sundry extreme rightwing groups have been gaining strength across Europe, and there are few signs that trend will flag in 2016.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, France’s far-right National Front saw record gains in the first round of regional elections on December 6, coming out on top in half of France’s 13 regions. However, the party flopped in the second round, failing to win a single race. Experts put it down to the Socialist Party’s decision to pull out of some races and to urge supporters to back conservative candidates in hopes of blocking a far-right win.

Jean-Yves Camus, an expert on the far right in France, said that Europe's far right was portraying people arriving on European soil as “neither refugees nor migrants, but invaders.” Camus said the fact that the migrants are mainly Muslims played into far-right ideology, which portrays them as leading a "crusade" against Europe's "Christian traditions."

Even in Scandinavia, widely seen as a center of tolerance, extreme right-wing groups are gaining ground. In Sweden, the extreme-right Sweden Democrats -- a party started in the 1980s as a white supremacist group -- has gradually risen in polls. Official estimates suggest up to 190,000 migrants could come to the country of 10 million people this year. Next door in Norway, with its generous social welfare system struggling to cope, the government announced in late November that its asylum regime would revert to the “EU minimum.” The government’s tougher stance could steal some of the thunder of the extremists there.

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Sweden shows how the fear of further inroads by the far-right can push governments to adopt less welcoming policies. In Hungary, Orban’s Fidesz party espouses a more traditional right-wing philosophy -- but has moved even further right to avoid being outflanked by Jobbik, an extremist party. Orban’s lasting success in Hungary may have served as inspiration for Poland’s Law and Justice party, which took power in November after eight years in opposition.

In an opinion article in The New York Times on December 11, analyst Ivan Krastev said the ballot-box success of Law and Justice is part of a trend in which populist and radical parties feed off disgruntled majorities – with potentially devastating effects for the future of the EU.

“The rise of these parties is symptomatic of the explosion of threatened majorities as a force in European politics. They blame the loss of control over their lives, real or imagined, on a conspiracy between cosmopolitan-minded elites and tribal-minded immigrants,” Krastev said. He warned that if more and more countries follow the “Orban model of rebuking the European Union while accepting billions in aid money,” at some point “there will be no European Union to blame.”


In part due to pressures from a rising right, and in particular the euro-skeptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), British Prime Minister David Cameron promised a referendum on EU membership to ensure a Tory victory in last May’s election. The United Kingdom is not a member of the eurozone, the currency bloc of 18 European countries. However, it is the second-largest economy in Europe, and its exit would subtract some 15 percent of the EU’s GDP. Cameron wants Britain to stay in, and has promised to negotiate new terms with Brussels to give London more room to act independently. EU officials are wary of setting a precedent and whetting other members’ appetites for more autonomy. No firm date has been set for the referendum, and it could be postponed until 2017 or later, but the possibility of a "Brexit" will loom over the EU in 2016.


It’s not an issue tearing the EU apart, but relations with Moscow are causing friction in the bloc. The EU joined the United States in imposing sanctions against Russia for its illegal annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and its support for separatists whose conflict with Kyiv has killed more than 9,000 people in eastern Ukraine since that April. The bulk of the EU sanctions are in place until the end of January 2016 -- but their future after that is more cloudy.

On December 9, plans for a vote to extend sanctions through July 31 were scuttled when Italy called for further debate -- an unexpected move that outlined cracks in the EU over how to deal with the Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin, despite expectations that the extension will be approved in the end. The sanctions, coupled with depressed global energy prices, have hit Russia hard. But they are pinching Europe as well. According to the German daily Die Welt, sanctions against Russia could eventually cost Europe $114 billion and up to 2 million jobs.

The sanctions haven’t put a full-stop, however, to business dealings between Moscow and Western Europe. In September, a group of European companies signed an agreement with state-controlled Gazprom to expand Nord Stream, a pipeline that delivers gas to Germany and bypasses Ukraine. Shocked by the deal, 10 Central and Eastern European governments signed a letter in November saying Russia’s pipeline plans run counter to EU interests and risk further destabilizing Ukraine.

But a tighter focus on fighting Islamic State militants and resolving the Syria crisis in the wake of the Paris attacks has some EU countries, particularly eastern members such as the Baltics, worrying it will be business as usual with the Kremlin soon enough. Philippe Migault, a French expert from the Institute for International and Strategic Relations, told Poland’s PAP news agency in November that international relations were marked “by cynicism,” adding that “our priority now is not what’s happening in Ukraine. Our priorities are the 130 Paris victims.” With realpolitik taking over, officials in Kyiv will be hard pressed in 2016 to keep their plight on the top of the EU agenda.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.

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