(Title Image: EU Council)
It’s easy to forget that amidst the UK’s clowning about that the rest of the EU have had to deal with the fallout of Brexit too – and it’ll have as much of an impact on them as it will do on the UK.
Like the UK, a lot of this depends on precisely what sort of Brexit the UK will have. The main concerns seem to be around customs arrangements/border checks, the “just in time” logistical process and the status of EU citizens in the UK and vice versa.
Another thing that’s easy to forget – particularly in the case of the latter – is that there’s anything up to 1.3million UK citizens living in the EU and a sizable chunk of them live in just three countries: Spain, the Republic of Ireland and France. It’s likely quite a few of these will be of retirement age and that brings with it a whole host of issues.
It may benefit Spain, for example, if UK citizens lost access to free medical care and had to pay full whack under a “No Deal”; any person of pensionable age and above is usually a net-recipient of public services by virtue of their age. A potential serious negative impact for Spain to offset that would be the impact of Brexit on tourism and particularly “residential tourism” which supports the property market in some parts of Spain.
Then there are the border issues. The EU looks after its own and has come down very firmly on the Republic of Ireland’s side in the case of “The Backstop” and the long-term future of the border with Northern Ireland; Ireland itself is expected to be the biggest loser, economically, from Brexit due to the high volume of cross-border trade.
Another potential issue is Gibraltar. Gibraltar voted 96% Remain and has suffered in the past when the Spanish authorities in Andalucia have closed the border. That situation looks set to raise its head again with the far-right populist Vox party making big gains in the 2019 Spanish General Election, promising to regain sovereignty over Gibraltar, which leads nicely into….
2. Populism & Right-Wing Nationalism
The new wave of populism has taken Europe by storm and posed serious problems for the cosmopolitans at the heart of the EU.
Current projections suggest that while the europhile centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) will remain the single largest political group in the European Parliament, the far-right and populist EFDD and ENF groups (many of which are contesting the election under the European Alliance of Peoples and Nations/EAPN banner) could double their number of seats.
By all indications, support for the EU has actually grown or remained stable in all other member states. However, there’s an element of pessimism over the bloc’s future and European elections have almost always been used to register a protest against ruling parties based on domestic issues rather than anything the EU actually controls.
3. Immigration & Climate Change
Immigration is nearly always an issue at European elections because the proportional voting system gives the aforementioned populist and right-wing parties – who might otherwise not get a look in at national level – a chance for success and to put certain issues into the spotlight.
For the previous five years, in particular, dealing with refugees fleeing from the Syrian Civil War – as well as economic migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean after being people-trafficked through Africa – have galvanised support for anti-immigration and nativist parties in southern and eastern parts of the EU, as well as Sweden.
This year doesn’t look like being any different. For as long as political decisions are deemed to be out of kilter with public attitudes the far-right and populism will continue to sustain itself.
Most EU immigration policies to date have been stop-gaps to cope with individual crises when what’s needed is more co-operation and co-ordination to control the flow and distribution of economic migrants and refugees. The problem there is any further co-operation will fuel demands from populists for individual member states to take back control of their own borders. With that, one of the main pillars of the EU – freedom of movement – will be put under enormous strain.
One other issue likely to be put on the agenda is climate change, particularly expanding renewable energy capacity across the EU and dealing with extreme weather events. While most of the focus will be on the populists winning seats, there’s an anticipated boost for the Green-European Free Alliance (G-EFA) too (though not to the same extent). Climate change will likely increase the number of people fleeing the global south, while some parts of the EU are particularly prone to desertification.
4. Trade war with the US?
Most of the focus is on Trump’s economic sabre-rattling with China, but it’s worth remembering there’s a trade war between the US and EU bubbling for a while – even though just a few years ago it seemed like the controversial TTIP agreement was close to being finalised.
One of the trade issues dominating the next term will be retaliatory tariffs against US imports, mainly in a dispute over US subsidies for Boeing and likewise EU subsidies for Airbus.
Normally, the UK would act as an intermediary of sorts in this kind of dispute, but it’s unclear whether Brexit (and effectively becoming a third party in this dispute) would help or hinder the UK.
The UK could negotiate a free trade agreement with the US by ourselves (though that will probably anger the EU and the UK get taken to the cleaners by American negotiators), or the UK could try to get everyone around the table and use the dispute as an opportunity to eke out a new global role.
5. Ever closer union?
This election could be a watershed moment in determining how far and how deep the EU member states will integrate with each other after Brexit.
A fiscal union between eurozone member states is an obvious next step, which would open the door to some taxes being set by the EU in eurozone states (the EU already has some powers with regard VAT). Other potential areas of integration include energy (i.e. creating an EU equivalent of the National Grid), foreign policy, foreign aid, non-EU migration and some aspects of defence and civil defence.
On the flip side, the case may be made for powers to be taken away from the EU – as a result of pressure by populists – that could include some aspects of social policy, free movement rules and employment law/workers’ rights.