by Mary Dejevsky, Valdai Club

If you had looked into 2017 last December and tried to forecast Europe’s political weather in the year to come, the tone would have been grim. All manner of tempests seemed to be heading Europe’s way.

To almost universal surprise, Donald Trump had just been elected President of the United States, on a platform that called almost all assumptions into doubt, including the Nato alliance. The President-elect’s oft-stated hope of better relations with Russia had additionally unsettled much of Europe, especially its northern and eastern parts.

Several countries faced national elections, in which populist, nativist, or right-wing parties were expected to perform strongly. Those who saw liberal democracy as the embodiment of European values warned that those values were, as never before, at risk.

As if all this was not enough, the UK Government was set to give formal notice of the country’s decision to leave the European Union, by invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. It was a move viewed in many pro-EU quarters with dread, as possibly heralding a more general rush for the doors.

So the mood was dark, with unsavoury nationalists cast as the few likely winners. Russia, too, was seen as a beneficiary, if its abiding aim – as many Europeans believed – was to de-stabilise, or fragment, the EU.

In fact, though, despite all the gloomy forecasts, 2017 turned out to be not a bad year at all, either for the European Union, or for the wider region of Europe as a whole.

Let’s start with Donald Trump. For supporters of a strong and integrated Europe, the new US President turned out to be a benefactor in disguise. He might have been beleaguered at home; opponents might have sabotaged his hopes of improving relations with Russia, but doubts about his commitment to European security had something of a galvanising effect.

Concerned that Trump might have meant it when he once described Nato as “obsolete”, the Europeans started taking a more serious attitude to their own defence. In the Nato alliance, this meant being ready to pay (a bit) more. The European Union, for its part, took a new look at developing its own defence capability, up to, and possibly including, a European army. The prospect of Brexit helped this along, because the UK had always opposed any cohesive EU defence effort, fearing that it could weaken the transatlantic alliance.  

And this brings me on to the second setback for Europe that did not, in fact, happen. When the UK actually invoked Article 50, on 29 March, 2017, far from triggering a general exodus from the EU, it had almost the opposite effect. The EU 27 – as they started to be called – displayed almost unprecedented unity, both in their attitude to the Brexit negotiations and on quite a lot more.

It was almost as if the European Union was suddenly free to be itself, without the UK demanding special conditions from the sidelines. Defence was one of the first policy areas to be addressed, with a common army and common procurement no longer taboo.

These may not happen for a long time, if ever. There is still a strong sense that sending troops to fight must be the responsibility of an elected national government. But the desirability of more concerted EU security – whether in the east, in the face of Russia’s improved military capability, or in the south, in the face of unorganised mass migration – was being recognised and acted upon.

Nor was defence the only area where the EU 27 applied their new-found spirit of cooperation, their talks on almost everything from foreign policy to financial structures and even migration seemed to become more harmonious.

The third predicted setback for Europe that didn’t happen, or at least not in the way envisaged, came at the ballot-box, where the most Euro-sceptic parties were rejected. First was the Netherlands, which rejected the far-right party of Geert Wilders and kept him a long way from government. Last of the year was Austria, where the right-wing People’s Party did well enough to become the junior partner in government, but endorsed strong membership of the EU.

In between came Germany. The Eurosceptic far-right and far-left may have profited from Angela Merkel’s generous response to the 2015 refugee crisis, but the resulting coalition government is likely to be even more pro-EU than the one before. The SPD leader, Martin Schulz, is so ardent a Europhile that he talked to his party conference of a “United States of Europe”.

It was France, though, that produced what could be the game-changer, electing Emmanuel Macron as President, after a campaign where he presented himself as an enthusiastic European with a message of hope for the EU. Marine Le Pen, head of the National Front and his chief rival, had to soften her anti-EU pitch in response.

On election night, Macron chose the EU anthem “Ode to Joy”, not the Marseillaise, to accompany him to the podium to deliver his victory speech. And he went on as he began. In September, he gave an eloquent programmatic speech, setting out his principles and plans for the EU, including revival of the French-German “dynamo”, consolidation of the eurozone, a common approach to borders and migration, as well as reform of the hitherto sacrosanct Common Agricultural Policy. He also proposed a “multi-speed” EU, designed to stem some of the concerns of the “new” European countries’ about sovereignty, and possibly, in time, even draw the UK back in.  

If Macron can maintain his ascendance in France – and his recent rise in the opinion polls suggests he can – and if Merkel’s new coalition proves more Europhile than her last, then the EU looks in far better shape now than it did 12 months ago. It also weathered a challenge – f regional separatism – that was not envisaged then. Despite many calls for it to intervene in the Catalan crisis, Brussels insisted that that this was an internal matter for Spain. That policy – much-criticised, but surely right – ensured that no potentially destructive precedent had been set.

So what will Europe’s New Year hold? It seems to me that, in retrospect and contrary to expectations, it was this past year that was the year of change, and that the trends for the next few years, perhaps even the next decade, have now been set. The EU will find it easier to remain purposeful and united without the UK, with more cohesion on two central issues – security and the eurozone – than would ever have been possible before. Merkel’s dependence on the SPD, whether in formal coalition or not, could also foster more EU-wide agreement, not just on financial structures, but on preventing the East and Central Europeans from backsliding on their EU obligations and on sketching the preliminary lines of a pan-EU foreign policy, including a gradual reopening towards Russia.

The past year also showed that both the EU and Nato have lost some of their enthusiasm to enlarge. It is true that Montenegro joined Nato, and the western Balkans are next on the EU’s list. But the EU’s Eastern Partnership summit in November retreated from any promises of entry to Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova, with Turkey, too, remaining far from the door. There appears to be acceptance that Romania and Bulgaria were admitted too soon, and that mistakes were made over Ukraine. Perhaps lessons have been learned.

If expansion is off the agenda, the main questions facing Europe in the coming year will be about internal priorities. The EU 27 will have to decide how far they will embrace Macron’s ideas about eurozone structures and security. Will they be able to agree measures to curb and organise migration? Will the newer members accept a multi-speed arrangement? Will defensive measures against Russia be coupled with a partial economic thaw, perhaps after the Russian presidential election? Could a lull in hostilities in the Donbass presage a settlement before the 2019 Ukraine presidential elections?

The striking element here is how little any of these questions involve either the United States or the UK, which seem more peripheral to continental Europe than for a very long time.