Welcome to 2017 and “Survivor” — the European politics edition. Appropriately enough, a preview of this new reality show aired Friday on an island, as EU leaders gathered in Malta. But it will run throughout the year.
French President François Hollande has already surrendered, declining to run for re-election amid abysmal approval numbers. But that doesn’t mean he’s dropping off the show just yet. Hollande is a possible challenger to European Council President Donald Tusk, whose first term ends in May and who has declared he will fight to keep the job.
A throw-down over the Council presidency is just one of the exciting installments ahead. Other leaders are also battling for their political lives. And even before turning to internal rivalries, our EU stars have made clear they are united against what they view as a pressing, external threat: a potential ratings war with Mr. Reality TV himself, the apprentice American president, Donald Trump.
EPISODE ONE: Mogherini & Poroshenko vs Putin
When asked who posed a greater threat to the EU, Trump or Russian President Vladimir Putin, Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said Europe should fear complacency most. “The biggest threat is really and truly if we don’t acknowledge that right now we are living in different times, historic times,” Muscat said. “And we need to get our act together.”
“Simply unity for unity’s sake is not enough,” Muscat continued. “We can unite on irrelevant subjects. We can unite on the state of the weather in the Caribbean. That doesn’t really make a difference to people’s lives.” He noted that the year was already off to a good start, with strong backing by the Council on Friday for a plan to halt the tide of migrants across the central Mediterranean.
But while there is evidence that the migrant issue and Trump’s early pot-shots have brought EU leaders closer together, maintaining that unity will not be easy as they face a series of collective and personal perils. Here’s a look at the season ahead:
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini | Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty
This battle is already well underway as fighting in eastern Ukraine has intensified to its worst level in more than a year. Trump’s approach to the situation in Ukraine has been shaky so far, oddly offering his first reassurance on maintaining sanctions against Russia to Yulia Tymoshenko, an opposition figure in Ukraine. Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, will largely determine if Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko continues to benefit from the Western muscle that has supported him since 2014.
EPISODE TWO: European Commission vs Poland
In late December, European Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans issued an ultimatum to Poland, giving Warsaw two months to resolve its dispute with Brussels over the rule-of-law and the reshaping of the country’s constitutional court. Timmermans and the Commission have blinked before in this fight, but late February may be the moment of truth. If Poland doesn’t back down, the Commission will lose substantial credibility if it does not invoke Article 7 of the EU Treaty, which allows the suspension of voting rights for EU countries that commit fundamental rights violations.
EPISODE THREE: Theresa May vs Everyone
The U.K., which truly wants to be its own island, plans to trigger formal Brexit negotiations in early March. The ultimate winner of this one won’t be revealed until the 2019 season at the earliest but losers could start piling up quickly, and the chances of collateral damage (City of London? North Atlantic fishermen? Parliament negotiator Guy Verhofstadt?) are high. In the meantime, May will find herself increasingly isolated at EU gatherings, having already voted herself off the Brussels-based show.
EPISODE FOUR: Mark Rutte vs Geert Wilders
The Dutch general election, in which Prime Minister Mark Rutte is seeking to preserve the governing coalition led by his People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, will be held on March 15. Polls show Rutte’s party running second to the far-right Freedom Party led by Geert Wilders and anything less could make Rutte the first leader ousted. The election in many ways stands to be a wild free-for-all, because dozens of parties will participate and many will win seats in parliament. The real action will be the coalition-building that follows the balloting. Also hanging in the balance is the fate of Eurogroup president Jeroen Dijsselbloem.
EPISODE FIVE: ESM vs Greece vs IMF
The ongoing saga of the Greek financial crisis poses political risks for a number of main players, most directly for Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. The European Stability Mechanism, which is overseeing the latest €86 billion bailout program, and the Greek government have yet to convince the International Monetary Fund to join the latest rescue, prompting renewed concern about Greece’s future in the eurozone. The second review of the rescue program is underway and anything less than a straight-A report card could spell trouble for our Survivor contestants.
EPISODE SIX: Everyone vs Marine Le Pen
If there’s one thing that the Brussels establishment seems to agree on, it’s that a victory for National Front leader Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election would be catastrophic for the EU. So it’s with no small amount of horror and dismay that EU leaders have watched the meltdown of conservative candidate François Fillon, amid allegations of improper payments to his family members. The first round of voting will be held April 23, with a runoff on May 7. Meanwhile, incumbent Hollande may be counting on Brussels’ habit of giving a second chance to leaders who wore out their welcome at home, like Commission President (and former Luxembourg Prime Minister) Jean-Claude Juncker, but that’s the next episode.
EPISODE SEVEN: Tusk vs Tusk
A desire among EU leaders to project confidence and stability in tumultuous times may give Tusk the inside track for a second term as European Council president. But Tusk is opposed by his native Poland (where his political rivals are in charge) and Antonio Tajani’s election as president of the European Parliament means that the European People’s Party now controls the top slots at the Parliament, the Commission and the Council.
Since Juncker’s term runs until 2019, the only chance for re-balancing would be to replace Tusk with a Socialist like Hollande, who also happens to be close to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the bloc’s most influential leader. But Merkel faces her own federal elections (see below) and may not have much interest in negotiating a transition at the Council.
The regional government of Catalonia is insisting that it will hold a referendum on independence in September regardless of the views of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and the national government in Madrid. Tensions are already flaring because of the trial of the former Catalonian leader, Artur Mas. Rajoy recently declared that he will not permit the referendum to go forward. The dispute will pose a major test of his leadership, at a time when the government in Madrid remains fragile, and Spain will also have a role in delicate Brexit negotiations over Gibraltar and the more than 300,000 U.K. citizens who live in Spain.
EPISODE NINE: Angela Merkel vs Martin Schulz
Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union continues to top all polls ahead of Germany’s federal elections in September, making her the heavy favorite for another term as chancellor. But Schulz, the recently departed European Parliament president, has already given a boost to his Social Democrats. For many, the outcome of this election will determine not only who leads the EU’s biggest and richest country, but also who will speak for Western values and European ideals when America seems to be going rogue.
EPISODE TEN: Winner Merkel/Schulz vs Frauke Petry
The next chancellor will almost certainly have to confront a rising role for the far-right Alternative for Germany party and its leader Frauke Petry, who is certain to continue fanning the populist flames that have spread across the Continent. This is not only a battle for the political soul and conscience of Germany, but also a fight for control of the broader political narrative in Europe.
TREATY OF ROME: SPECIAL ANNIVERSARY SHOW
Much of the discussion at the Malta summit focused on plans to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome in March, and a goal, pushed heavily by Tusk, to use the occasion as a moment for leaders to rededicate themselves not just to the European Union, but also to European unity.
As he left Valletta on Friday, Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković insisted that Europe was succeeding, but he also summed up the challenge for his colleagues who certainly don’t seem to get much credit these days. “This new generation of leaders needs to breathe some new air and some fresh narrative to the whole process,” Plenković said.
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