Year in review: 2016 in the European Union | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 26.12.2016
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Year in review: 2016 in the European Union

The European Union seems to have spent 2016 in a state of constant crisis - or "polycrisis," as European Commission president Juncker calls it. Our Brussels correspondent Bernd Riegert looks back over the past year.

Following the last EU summit meeting in December, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel commented: "Looking back on 2016, we can say that this was a very turbulent year for us, for the European Union. Another very turbulent year, after 2015 proved extremely challenging on account of the many refugees. In particular, Britain's decision to leave the European Union is of course a decisive turning point." Everyone in Brussels agrees that, politically, this was a very bad year. European nationalists, populists and opponents of the EU, however, are celebrating.

Omar from Aleppo standing on a road (DW/L. Tomic)

On the Balkan route through Serbia heading for Germany: Amar from Aleppo


The year began as the old one ended: with the refugee crisis. Thousands of people were arriving every day via the Balkan route. Austria was the first country to pull the brake, closing its borders to Slovenia and Hungary. Little by little the Balkan states also closed theirs. Refugees and other migrants started to collect in Greece.

In Brussels the European Commission promised to crack down on tax evasion by big business. The "Lux Leaks" affair showed how favorable policies in Luxembourg, Ireland, the Netherlands and many other EU countries enable companies to fiddle the system legally.

In EU member state Poland, the constitutional order came under threat. The EU Commission warned that the new conservative government there was obstructing the constitutional court. The Commission initiated proceedings, which still have not been concluded. The Polish government refuses to allow any kind of external interference in its affairs.


A last-ditch attempt to keep Britain in the EU. At a special summit, Prime Minister David Cameron obtained exceptional provisions for his disunited kingdom. "People said […] that a four-year restriction on benefits was completely out of the question, but that is now what is in the text," he declared. "I believe we are making real progress. [...] But the process is far from over. It will require hard work, determination and patience to see it through." Having secured "a clear path that can lead to a fresh settlement for Britain in a reformed European Union," Cameron set a June date for the Brexit referendum.


The EU and Turkey agreed on an effective policy to discourage refugees and migrants from attempting to travel to Europe. From March 20 onward, anyone arriving in Greece from Turkey would be sent back. Visiting Athens, EU President Donald Tusk made a dramatic appeal: "I am addressing all potential illegal economic refugees: Wherever you're from, don't come to Europe! Don't believe the smugglers! Don't put your lives and your money at risk. It won't do any good!" The EU decided to reinforce protection of its external borders. The plan worked, up to a point; there was a dramatic reduction in the number of arrivals. Chancellor Merkel herself promoted this new refugee policy after she was harshly criticized by other EU members. At home her party lost regional elections, and the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) surged ahead.

Woman placing a candle at the Maalbeek underground station (DW/C. Martens)

Commemorating the victims of terror in Brussels at Maalbeek station

Terrorist attacks in Brussels. Islamists killed 32 people at the airport and in a subway station. Europe was in a state of shock. Bombs at the heart of the European capital. Investigators gradually uncovered a network of terrorists from Belgium, France and Syria. Some had entered Europe via the recently closed Balkan route. The EU subsequently decided to implement stricter entry and exit checks, including for EU citizens, and to initiate closer cooperation between secret services.


The Netherlands rejected the EU's Association Agreement with Ukraine. The "No" in the Netherlands is another victory for the populists, who had turned the vote into a referendum on Prime Minister Rutte's government and the EU. At the end of the year the EU will again revise its agreement with Ukraine. Rutte hopes to get the Dutch parliament to ratify it after all.

The pope visited Lesbos. Conditions in the refugee camps on the Greek island were very bad. The so-called "hot spots" for processing asylum seekers weren't working, because the asylum process in Greece was taking too long. People were not being deported to Turkey as agreed. EU member states were refusing to take refugees and asylum seekers from Greece and Italy as agreed. Lack of solidarity in the bloc.

Heraehmen Rahman, a refugee, seen behind wire mesh (DW/B. Riegert)

Waiting to be returned to Turkey: the refugee Heraehmen on Lesbos


In Austria the right-wing populist Freedom Party (FPÖ) lost the presidential election by a small margin. Former Green politician Alexander Van der Bellen was elected over the FPÖ's candidate, Norbert Hofer. The FPÖ contested the result - successfully. The election was repeated in December, and Van der Bellen won again, by a bigger margin this time. EU leaders evaluated this as a success in the ongoing struggle with the populists. Nonetheless, opinion polls show that the FPÖ is still the strongest party in Austria.

Another multi-billion euro aid package for Greece was approved by EU finance ministers, only just scraping through. The Greek government is fulfilling requirements late and is seen to be dragging its feet. Nonetheless, the money keeps on flowing in order to avert another debt crisis. Fresh talks about debt relief for Greece had to be postponed again at the end of the year - but the Greek economy is slowly starting to grow.


"The EU is in a lamentable state," said the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, in an interview with euronews. Given the many crises within the EU, and growing tensions among its member states, he painted a grim picture. "The centrifugal, extreme forces are winning elections and referendums," he said. "If we question the heart of the European project, we are playing with the future of the next generation." Schulz has now left Brussels after 22 years in European politics, and plans to embark on a second political career: as German foreign minister, or even the SPD candidate for German chancellor.

Nigel Farage seen amid a group of flag-waving Brexit supporters (Reuters/T. Melville)

Nigel Farage (c.): The Britons followed him to the exit

A triumph of nationalism in Britain: Brexit is a reality. The "Leave" camp won the referendum. "The sun has risen on an independent UK. And just look at it, even the weather has improved!” crowed leading pro-Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage in London the following morning. "It's a victory for ordinary people, decent people; it's a victory against the big merchant banks, against the big businesses, against big politics." But Farage, a member of the European Parliament, quickly made himself scarce, resigning as leader of the UK Independence Party. Boris Johnson also backed out: The conservative politician, who led the Brexit campaign, didn't want to become prime minister and have to organize the exit. Theresa May took over, and coined the not very illuminating maxim "Brexit means Brexit." The 27 remaining member states said they would not make concessions to Britain, and called on May to present her Brexit plan. Months after the referendum, however, she still doesn't seem to have one. May intends to put in a formal application at the end of March 2017 for Britain to leave the EU.


At a summit meeting in Warsaw, NATO decided that it would once again station small bands of troops along its eastern border. This was intended as a signal to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin: this far and no farther. "We are not seeking confrontation with Russia," said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg; rather, NATO wanted a "meaningful and constructive dialogue." Moscow's response was that it, too, was not threatening anyone, but that it felt encircled by the Western alliance. The conflict in eastern Ukraine, where Russia is directing the rebels, remained frozen: No progress was made with the Minsk peace protocol. Sanctions against Russia were extended. Russia and the West also support opposing sides in the war in Syria.

Terrorist attack in Nice. An Islamist terrorist drove a truck into a crowd on the beach promenade. The man, a Tunisian, killed a total of 85 people. France, and the whole of Europe, was stunned. French President François Hollande found himself under increasing pressure: His prime minister, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service in Nice. The right-wing populist National Front is very strong in the south of France. People there are demanding more security.

In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan staved off an attempted coup. He consolidated his power with a wave of arrests and purges. The number of terror attacks by Islamists and Kurds in Turkey increased. The EU criticized Erdogan, but needed him to keep back the migrants. The EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security, Federica Mogherini, described this balancing act: "We fully support the democratic and legitimate institutions. However, there is no justification for the response to circumvent fundamental rights and freedoms." Erdogan repeatedly threatened to annul the deal on refugees, but has not done so.


Earthquake in central Italy. The little town of Amatrice was almost completely reduced to rubble. Almost 300 people died. It was a heavy blow for an Italy that was already in economic trouble. The Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, promised swift aid, but the people of Amatrice didn't believe him. In 2009 there was an earthquake in nearby Aquila, and families there are still living in emergency shelters.


Twenty-seven EU states met in Bratislava for a discussion of the community's objectives following the departure of Britain. A vehement argument erupted over migration policy, lack of solidarity, and the demand for greater sovereignty for individual states. Luxembourg's foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, called for Hungary to be thrown out of the EU on account of the autocratic policies of its national-conservative leader, Viktor Orban. The Hungarian foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, retaliated, saying: "Jean Asselborn has seriously insulted Hungary and the Hungarian people." The exchange says a great deal about the internal state of the bloc. Countries of the north and south are also in dispute over budgetary policy.

EU family photo in front of Bratislava Castle (Getty Images/AFP/J. Klamar)

And then there were 27: Whither with the post-Brexit EU?


CETA is coming. The EU and Canada signed a free trade agreement, after a considerable struggle on the European side. A veto by a Belgian region almost scuppered the agreement. At the signing of the treaty, the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, remained optimistic: "We are convinced we can demonstrate that international trade strengthens the middle class, and those working hard to join it," he said. CETA must now be ratified by all the EU member states. It is, however, by no means certain that the TTIP trade agreement with the United States will ever be signed. Opposition to it in Europe is growing, and the US president-elect, Donald Trump, is more inclined towards isolation.

The Calais "Jungle" was cleared. Thousands of people from the illegal camp had tried to cross from France to Britain through the Channel Tunnel, or in trucks on ferries. The migrants were redistributed around France, where they are supposed to be processed as asylum seekers. The Jungle had already been dismantled several times in recent years.


Watch video 01:51

European Parliament votes to freeze accession talks with Turkey - Bernd Riegert reports from Brussels

The European Parliament called for accession talks with Turkey, faltering for the past 11 years, to be frozen, saying that the country had breached fundamental European values. EU foreign ministers didn't go this far; instead, they decided that a new chapter in Turkey's accession negotiations would not be opened until further notice. Only Austria said clearly that Turkey could not become a member of the EU. The EU will continue to work with the Balkan states with a view to their accession.


The EU still doesn't have the refugee and migration crisis under control, according to the EU Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker. Hardly anyone is coming via the Balkan route any more, but almost as many are still coming from Africa as in 2015. The EU therefore wants to persuade African countries to prevent the migrants from setting off. Deterrence is the keyword. The EU calls these "migration partnerships."

At the December summit, EU heads of state and government admitted their incapacity to act with regard to the conflict in Syria. They could only stare in disbelief at the actions taken by Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime against the Syrian population. Their response to potential war crimes on the rebel side was equally impotent. "I won't hide the fact that this part of the discussion was very depressing, because we are all seeing something in the 21st century that is shameful, that breaks your heart. It shows that we were unable to act, that we would like to act," said German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She didn't address how this could be done.

Lotteria Italia (lottery sign) (DW/B. Riegert)

Political gambling in Italy: Will the crisis return without Renzi?

Another victory for the populists: in Italy this time. The Socialist prime minister, Matteo Renzi, suffered a crushing defeat in a referendum on the constitution. The Italian people rejected both Renzi's EU-friendly course and his economic policy. The radical Five Star Movement surged ahead. An interim government is now tasked with getting Italy's banking crisis under control. The European Central Bank is continuing with its policy of ultra-cheap money, which supports crisis-hit countries like Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece and France. Northern countries are critical of this policy. The eurozone is creaking dangerously. But the European economy is growing, and unemployment is gradually sinking. "The risks remain high, both internally and externally," said Mario Draghi, the head of the European Central Bank, as the year drew to a close.

Another terror attack shocked the European Union shortly before the end of the year, this time in the German capital, Berlin, where 12 people died and some 50 were injured after a truck drove into a Christmas market in the center of the city. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said the attack, suspected to have been carried out by a Tunisian man shot dead by police in Italy some days later, was all the more devastating because the victims "had gathered there to celebrate the pre-Christmas season, which unites many with peace."

Several EU countries stepped up security measures following the attack, as the bloc mulls over how best to combat terrorism without excessively curbing civil liberties. 

Berlin - Trauer nach dem Anschlag in Berlin (picture alliance / NurPhoto)

"We love Berlin": Candles to commemorate the victims of the Berlin attack

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