LONDON -- Europe’s leaders are not expecting a smooth ride in 2017 following a year marked by political upheaval, extremist attacks, unchecked immigration, and a rising military threat from Russia.
Britain is suing for divorce, the far-right is on the march, some former Soviet satellites seem disillusioned with the West even as Russia seeks to regain its influence, and America will soon inaugurate an untested, seemingly Russia-friendly president who has voiced doubts about the usefulness of the NATO alliance. The uncertainty is thick enough to breathe.
It all looks so different from the triumphant panorama presented more than two decades ago when the European Union was expanding. Formerly captive nations freed from Soviet control seemed eager to embrace liberal democracy, capitalism - and substantial subsidies - from their wealthier neighbors.
There was rosy talk of an ever-closer union, the development of a single currency, and a cooperative relationship with Russia. It hasn’t turned out that way - the EU, with its touted ideals of shared democratic values and free movement of people, has never seemed so frayed and vulnerable.
“The risks for 2017 remain very high,” said Adam Thomson, director of the London-based European Leadership Network research group. “We Europeans need to recognize that we face a level of risk in the West-Russian confrontation that we have not seen since the 1960s. It is partly because a lot of the security rules of the road have been torn up or suspended, so there are fewer rules and less predictability.”
He said most Europeans do not perceive the danger because they have been lulled by the cordial East-West relations that prevailed for years after the Soviet collapse in 1991.
“Europeans have gotten used to 25 years of peace dividend, and a stability they have come to think of as normal but in fact might be the abnormality in Europe’s long history of conflict,” Thomson said.
There is deep unease in the Baltics, Scandinavia and elsewhere as Russia moves more military forces to its border regions and even places nuclear capable Iskander ballistic missiles into the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, where they can threaten part of Poland, Germany, and other countries.
Russian President Vladimir Putin seems emboldened by the lukewarm international response to his government’s annexation of the Crimea two years ago and his strong intervention in Syria this year - and by the growing support he enjoys among far-right political leaders who are gaining ground in Europe.
He has already been making inroads, with a pro-Russia candidate elected president in Moldova and a candidate calling for a European rapprochement with Russia winning in Bulgaria.
Electoral focal points in the coming year are France, where voters may bring to power a far-right National Front government that wants to follow Britain out of the European Union, and Germany and the Netherlands, where far-right parties also stand to make gains.
The increasing appeal of the far-right has been fueled by public unhappiness with the ongoing influx of migrants, mostly from the Middle East and Africa. Events like the recent extremist attack that killed 12 people at a Christmas market in Berlin - combined with earlier assaults on civilians in Paris and Brussels - have made it more common for Europeans to view the incoming human tide as a potential threat.
The coming year will determine whether Britain’s surprise decision in a June referendum to walk away from the many benefits of EU membership in favor of establishing firm border controls was an anomaly or a harbinger of things to come.
Elections in the Netherlands in March are expected to bring strong gains for Geert Wilders’ anti-Islam, anti-EU Party for Freedom, which could emerge as the biggest party. Even if that happens, he will likely find it very difficult to find enough partners to form a majority government in a country where coalitions are the norm due to the voting system and proliferation of smaller parties.
Wilders’ outspoken opposition to Islam has gained traction in a nation long known for its tolerance. He wants the Netherlands, a founding member of the EU, to leave the 28-nation bloc.
Both pose a threat to the European status quo: Le Pen wants to take France out of the EU, end its use of the shared euro currency, and close the border-free zone. Both candidates favor closer ties to Russia, including a lifting of sanctions. Both want to reduce immigration and strengthen border controls, though Fillon prefers to do so from within the EU bloc.
German elections expected in September are likely to bring the nationalist Alternative for Germany party into the federal parliament for the first time. The party’s strength, stemming from dissatisfaction at the influx of migrants to Germany over the past two years, has put Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats on the defensive - particularly after the Christmas market truck attack, apparently carried out by an asylum-seeker from Tunisia.
Some experts believe a Le Pen triumph in the final round in France in May would deal a fatal blow to the EU.
“France is the critical one,” said Anand Menon, director of the UK in a Changing Europe research group.
“I don’t think she’ll win, but if she does I think it would probably mean the end of the EU because she would start to challenge the authority of EU law,” he said. “She would ignore laws she doesn’t like, unilaterally start to impose border checks, and the sheer fragility of the EU would be brought into sharp relief. People don’t understand how fragile it is.”