State of the Union: Europe in 2019

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State of the Union: Europe in 2019
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Hello and welcome to 2019 - if you enjoyed the political rollercoaster that was 2018, then you’ll love what the next twelve months have in store. Predictions are a tricky matter, so let's take a cue from the past. Years ending in nine have a habit of shaking up the status quo: in 1789 - the French overthrew the monarchy, in 1859 British biologist Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species - throwing a scientific bombshell into the world, and in 1939 Europe descended into violence for the second global conflict of the twentieth century.

So what does this year ending in nine have in store? Brexit, shifting political fault lines and some important anniversaries. Our Brussels’ correspondents break it down for you.

January - from Brussels to Bucharest

Romania is taking the reins of the European Union during the first six months of the year.

But its ability to lead the project is being questioned. Even the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, has publicly expressed his doubts.

An opinion shared by Jean-Michel de Waele an expert in the countries of central Europe. We have asked him why.

"Because the Romanian government is more concerned about its own fate, to avoid going to jail, to avoid being persecuted by justice, than thinking about the future of the European Union."

Precisely the reform of justice that the Romanian government wants to approve and that could weak the fight against corruption, is being observed carefully by the European Commission.

And in this context, Romania will have to deal with two crucial issues that will mark the future of the European Union: the elections to the European Parliament and Brexit.

March - to the Houses of Common

With just over 80 days until the U.K.’s formal exit from the European Union, the UK parliament has just 12 weeks left to decide what to do.

Get your act together & then tell us what you want... is what Jean Claude Juncker told the UK last week in an interview to Germany's Welt am Sonntag.

And although it sounded like the title of the Spice Girls come back tour, the EU Commission President was actually capturing what people here are saying on and off the record and what the EU27 feel and the majority in the European Parliament who will have to ratify the deal

But what the UK really really wants is still unclear.

If they back May's deal, the UK will leave on 29 March in an orderly fashion with a transitional period. Then the future agreement wold have to be worked out which could take a while.

If MPs reject the deal, they could keep voting on it but the clock is ticking and if the deal is not backed by MPs on time, the UK could crash out without a deal, or there could be no Brexit for the moment and a second referendum..

What some here would like to see sooner rather than later is an extension to Article 50 to give the UK parliament more time.

2019 should answer some of the looming questions.

April - to the barracks

April 4th will mark 70-years of Washington Treaty, which laid the foundations of NATO.

This organization and the European Union have similar number of members. But while the EU becomes smaller this year, and the new headquarters of the North Atlantic alliance is clearly built on the growth.

In NATO, unity and discipline are felt, the United Kingdom plays a big role there - and this will help preserve peace in Europe after the Brexit, discouraging Germany and France to create the European army within the EU to keep the outsiders Brits in cheque.

Russia's actions towards Ukraine in 2014 gave NATO more “raison d'être ”. Allies, especially Eastern Europeans, fear that the same thing may happen to them and seek protection. For example, Poland would like to have an American base on its territory.

But the alliance does not need additional soldiers and missiles in Europe. Now, in the event of a crisis, it can use rapid reaction forces and, within 30 days, draw national troops into joint defense. Against who?

The NATO strategy provides for both containment of Russia and dialogue with it. Preparations are underway for the meeting of the bilateral council. In the meantime Latvia will host new NATO forward headquarters from 2019.

May - to the ballots

In the first European elections in 1979, the participation rate was 62%, but has been declining ever since.

In 2014 only 43% of European voters went to the polls. In addition to abstention, the elections at the end of May face the great challenge of pressure from populist forces, with polls suggesting a more fragmented hemicycle.

Traditional parties are being heavily challenged to hold most of the 705 seats in the European Parliament, now with fewer members due to the UK's exit.

A recent forecast indicates that the the biggest center parties will loose between 3 and 5 per cent of the votes.

These could go to the smaller groups, mainly in the extreme-right, but also in the radical left.

It is not clear how such different groups will change the dynamic in the parliament, says analyst Eric Maurice (Robert Schuman Foundation).

"Among the euro-skeptic groups, one group will lose the British Conservatives and the other group will lose the British UKIP; who pushed for the Brexit. So, it will be necessary to see how these groups will progress (integrate) with the League (from Italy), with the Rassemblement National from France, with the AFD from Germany and how they will organize themselves in different groups, because they do not have, at all, the same political visions regarding migration, Russia, the United States or the social and economic issues. So it will be necessary to see how they manage to influence the way the debate will be carried on at the European parliament, something that finally will be known only after the European elections."

June - to the East

Thirty years have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall and 15 years since the Eus eastern elrargement. However, the division is still big between East and West in Europe.

This year, the Article 7 process will continue against Poland and Hungary because of the rule of law situation.

Poland might give some concessions to Brussels, but the Orban government is more interested in fighting and maintaining tension.

At the same time, the former socialist countries are also not united, sor example the Checz republic and Slovakia opted for a deeper integration and our expert said its not the eastern countries causing the EU's current problems.

"As far as I know Brexit is not a new country, and it was not Poland and Bulgaria who voted against the European constitution. And the euroscepticism developed just fine in western Europe without the countries from Central Europe. So I really think that countries from central Europe are being used as scapegoat to hide our own faults and our inability to revive the European project," explains Jean-Michel de Waele professor from the ULB in Belgium.

Meanwhile, Brussels decided that during the the next EU budget period in won't put anymore its head in the sand and would link the EU payouts to good behaviour. Because of this some renitent easter members might be in trouble and lose cohesion money. They already protest loudly and the big fight is guaranteed.

And also...

New Commission: it's all change at the top, or more of the same? Jean-Claude Juncker has said he will not be seeking a second mandate. This means a new look Commission in the Autumn, which could see some interesting choices from EU countries that have made their opposition to a liberal democratic Europe quite clear.

A driverless future? This year MEPs will vote on a series of measures to promote driverless vehicles, including research and real-life testing to make roads safer.

Culture vultures take note - this year the honour of European Capitals of Culture go to Italy's hilltop town Matera and Bulgaria's Plovdiv - a chance to show off Europe's shared heritage, despite the political discord between some member states.

Predictions are frivolous things, so expect the unexpected. What's safe to say is that we'll be here to give you the inside track. Join us next week for more from the capital of European politics.