To put it mildly, 2016 has been a pretty eventful year politically with Brexit, the election of Trump, a failed coup in Turkey, the downfall of Renzi as well as slightly inconclusive elections in both Ireland and Spain.
As we hurtle to the close of the year, many interested or active in politics will be hoping for some sort of respite over the festive season before what could be an even more eventful year in 2017. Whatever 2017 as in store for us will be based largely on what 2016 has thrown up with a few elections and issues already known.
One of the first issues to be dealt with will be the fallout of Matteo Renzi’s resignation in Italy following his referendum defeat, Renzi’s former Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni has taken over temporarily with Renzi expected to lead his centre left bloc into fresh elections early in the year. There he will face off once again with whatever coalition Silvio Berlusconi can cobble together and the looming challenge of Beppe Grillo, the former comedian and leader of the populist Five Star Movement who is intent on pulling Italy out of the euro.
Theresa May is expected to trigger Article 50 in March thus beginning a two year negotiation process determining the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. May’s team will be headed by Boris Johnston, Liam Fox and David Davis who will face off against Michel Barnier, Guy Verhofstadt and Didier Seeuws. The remaining 27 Member States of the EU have agreed to negotiate as one and the position of Ireland will be an extremely sensitive one in areas such as North/South relations, common travel, trade and the Irish diaspora.
The French people will go to the polls in April and again in May to elect a new President to succeed the woefully unpopular François Hollande who will not be running again. As it stands the favourites to reach the run-off election on the 7th May are François Fillon of the centre right Les Républicains and Marine Le Pen of the far right Front National. In such a scenario many expect and hope the remaining moderate voters will do what they did in 2002 and rally together to keep out Le Pen. However, the Front National has been working hard to portray themselves as the true party of the working classes and they are a far more palatable or at least more PR savvy entity now than in 2002. Other potential run off candidates include the youthful Emmanuel Macron formerly of the Socialists and Manuel Valls, the former Prime Minister who is expected to win the Socialist primary on the 22nd January.
Europe’s longest-serving incumbent head of government, Angela Merkel, will go before the people for a fourth time in the autumn of 2017. With recent polls giving her a 59% approval rating, it is expected that she will return to lead another Grand Coalition between the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats. The only other feasible alternative seems to be a three party coalition of the Social Democrats, the Greens and the former Communists of Die Lienke. For this to happen would require the Social Democrats to significantly improve their poll ratings.
The Dutch are due to vote in a General Election on the 15th March with another right wing populist, Geert Wilders, set to lead his Partij voor de Vrijheid, PVV (Party for Freedom) to the largest amount of seats. Wilders is seeking the de-Islamification of the Netherlands as well as a sharp withdrawal from the EU. While the PVV is set to be the largest party, it is expected that outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Liberal, People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), should be able to cobble together another coalition to keep Wilders out but this is far from certain.
In the EU, Presidential elections will also be held in Hungary and Slovenia while the Czechs will hold Parliamentary elections in October. The migrant crisis has been a big issue in all three states and it will likely feature heavily in the campaigns.
Elections will also be held in accession countries including Albania and Serbia and it will be interesting to see if traditionally pro-European parties are able to maintain dominance and also to what extent the Russians exert influence over the elections.
For many, 2016, was an annus horribilis politically but regardless of one’s political leanings, the fall out of the political events of 2016 will dominate the events of 2017. It cannot be forgotten that in addition to all the planned events above, we in Ireland find ourselves in a very delicate political situation. The minority Government has confounded many critics by lasting six months so far, the global and local challenges presenting in 2017 are likely to be even more difficult.
Regardless of what comes, I’d like to wish everyone all the best for the holiday season and every good wish for the New Year.
Senator Neale Richmond is the Government spokesman on EU Affairs in Seanad Éireann.