2. Look who will (likely) ruin 2017
Europe has endured major angst these last 12 months, and many would say that the year 2016 was among the Continent’s most unlovely since the Balkan civil war. As we tiptoe into 2017, there’s no reason to believe that things will take a striking turn for the better.
So in this spirit of gloom, POLITICO brings you a dozen characters who will make you want to stay in bed — with the covers pulled firmly over your trembling head.
- Carles Puigdemont
Catalonia, the prosperous and, some would say, solipsistic region in the country’s northeast, is Spain’s rift that keeps on giving. Carles Puigdemont, the president of the Catalan regional government, is trying to hold a referendum on independence from Spain next year.
Both the Spanish government and the country’s constitutional court are adamant that such a move would be legally impermissible, since matters affecting all Spaniards can only be decided by all Spaniards and not merely by some of them.
So the Catalan drive for “self-determination” — as separatist politicians see it — puts the government in Madrid and the Catalan administration on a collision course as spectacular as any faceoff between Real Madrid and Barcelona. And that will force European institutions and other European governments to take sides.
Given the many separatist wannabes across the Continent, it’s doubtful any member country would take the Catalan side. But in truth, most would rather not be asked.
- Wilbur Ross
Ross is Trump’s nominee for commerce secretary, and has had much less of the analytical spotlight since his nomination than the president-elect’s other eye-catching pick from the private sector, Rex Tillerson.
To be sure, Ross is going to be much scarier for China than he is, immediately, for Europe. He comes out of the steel industry, and steel is overwhelmingly a “China problem.” But Ross has spoken out in favor of doing bilateral agreements rather than regional ones.
This bodes poorly for the prospects of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP, and the death of TTIP would weaken Europe’s hand in the Brexit negotiations. To the extent that Ross talks up a free-trade agreement with a post-Brexit U.K. — which Trump already has — that would be a boost for the hard-Brexiteers.
Ross also has a mercantilist approach to trade that could grate with Europe. As the Wall Street Journal has written, “He believes that good trade policy yields a national trade surplus, while bad deals produce trade deficits — as if every country in the world could run a trade surplus.”
- Nicolas Sarkozy
It may seem eccentric to have an apparent has-been on this list of Europe’s bogey-persons for 2017, but there’s a reason to keep a defensive eye on the former French president: He’s not on the presidential ballot, but being essentially unscrupulous and irrepressible, he’s likely to bounce back after the election to occupy the “respectable” anti-Europe space in France. (Sarkozy was at his best when he opposed Europe as a populist and energetic finance minister to save Alstom, the engineering giant, from bankruptcy.)
With the center-right François Fillon arguably too boring, the centrist Emmanuel Macron too wealthy and privileged, the populist Le Pen marginalized and trapped in family cat-fights, and the leftists politically dead, there’s a post-election path back to power for Sarko.
His scenario: Le Pen flames out in round one, leaving either Fillon or Macron to become president; whoever wins will surely disappoint France, giving Sarkozy the opportunity to offer a more acceptable and mainstream “Frexit” platform than Le Pen ever could.
Europe should shudder: He is a cowardly leader who let Putin intimidate him, and would not be elected but for the peculiar vagaries of the French system.
- Martin Selmayr
Selmayr, the cabinet chief of the European Commission president, is widely accepted as the power behind — and right beside — the Juncker throne. The antithesis of the docile functionary, he has shown a willingness to confront and mock national ministers and leaders, as seen in his interactions with German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, respectively.
He is known to block files he doesn’t support from moving forward, even when whole teams of commissioners disagree: complaints by Uber and Airbnb are examples. But the Selmayr Strongarm is starting to annoy commissioners and officials. One, Kristalina Georgieva, the Bulgarian vice president of the European Commission, left her job in October to join the World Bank. She considered Selmayr to be a “poisonous” influence on the Commission. Others may follow her.
It is no secret that Selmayr wants nothing more than a stronger, federal Europe. The question is: Will he wreck the EU we’ve got in his determination to make the new one?
(Let’s call it Selmayrstan.)
- Margrethe Vestager
Something of a heroine on the anti-big business left in Europe, Vestager, the European commissioner for competition from Denmark, might seem a contrarian choice for this list. But she could make life difficult this year for people on the old continent if she is too gung-ho with the most politically explosive cases. How will a big tax claw-back against Amazon go down with the new nationalist Trump administration? Or the colossal fines against Google, whose CEO is a member of Trump’s new circle of techie buddies?
A tough decision against Google might be welcomed with dancing in the streets in some European cities, but an “America First” Washington could be incensed. And unless she is careful, her state aid probes into the deal the U.K. offered Nissan or the tax affairs of Gibraltar could poison already tense EU-U.K. relations. Cases against French national champions like EDF or Areva could also feed anti-EU sentiment in France during an election year.
- Geert Wilders
Wilders, leader of the Dutch Freedom Party, is the OTHER intemperate white male politician with a blonde bouffant. He plies his trade in the Netherlands, a liberal, tolerant country that grows less liberal and tolerant by the day, thanks to his tireless efforts.
Unlike Le Pen in France, or other far-right politicians in Europe, he is not a crude nativist or anti-Semite. Instead, he directs his ire almost exclusively at Islam, while purporting to be a defender of Western values. One might be tempted to call him a “Western-civ” fundamentalist if one could be sure that he would be tolerant of those Arab immigrants who integrated more fully within Europe.
But since he has called for a banning of the Koran and a closure of all mosques in the Netherlands, there is clearly no place in Wilders’ society for even the most moderate Muslim.
As Europe confronts a refugee crisis without apparent end, his style of Manichean confrontation offers a recipe for civil war in Europe’s midst.
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