Europe will look back on 2016 as a dreadful year – the horror of attacks in Brussels, Nice and Berlin, the shame of Calais and the earthquake of Brexit.
Sadly, 2017 might be another.
Or it might not. If there was one thing 2016 taught us, it’s that predictions are a mug’s game, so here are two scenarios for next year.
The doomsday option is this: another indiscriminate, deadly attack early in the year bodes ill for a continent that lost 130 people to terrorist attacks in 2016. It plays into the hands of Geert Wilders, the Dutch far-right candidate in March general elections, who sweeps to victory.
Barely a month later – just before the first round of France’s potentially pivotal presidential elections on 23 April – Turkey’s increasingly autocratic president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, finally runs out of patience.
But Europe is appalled by Erdoğan’s repressive response to the failed July coup, and MEPs have urged EU capitals to freeze accession talks. Nor is there agreement on whether Turkey has met conditions for visa-free travel.
So Erdoğan decides now would be a good time to open his borders, allowing hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees and migrants stuck in Turkey to leave for the EU if they wish, which many – especially fit young men – do.
Images of this new exodus of migrant misery flash across the continent’s TV screens as France votes and, despite polls putting her conservative rival, François Fillon, well clear, Marine Le Pen of the radical-right, anti-immigration Front National storms to a shock second-round victory in May.
In snap June elections, Italy’s Five Star Movement (M5S) then completes an anti-establishment takeover of three of the EU’s six original members, and by autumn the escalating migrant crisis and ongoing terror threat unseat a fourth: badly weakened by the continuing fallout from Berlin’s deadly Christmas market attack, Angela Merkel falls in Germany’s federal elections.
Following Donald Trump’s example, protectionist European governments eagerly set about ripping up multilateral trade agreements and locking down borders. In the Netherlands and France, Wilders and Le Pen head for early referendums on Nexit and Frexit; Italy calls a plebiscite on readopting the lira.
Finally, with the eurozone’s debtors and creditors at each others’ throats and a hapless, floundering and increasingly disconnected EU at risk if not of outright collapse, then at least of radical remodelling, Greece says once more: “Can’t pay, won’t pay,” and Berlin and Brussels reply: no more bailouts.
None of this, of course, need happen.
Europe’s police and intelligence services could continue to thwart the terror plots, and Turkey’s Erdoğan could conclude his long-term interests are, on balance, better served by not plunging Europe into terminal crisis.
The continent could just – as the recent unexpected victory of the left-leaning independent Alexander Van der Bellen over the far-right’s Norbert Hofer in Austria’s presidential election may show – have reached peak populism.
Shaken by the obvious chaos of Brexit, rocked by the profoundly destabilising advent of Trump, Europe’s voters could take a closer look at what the nativist, radical-right parties are promising and opt, instead, for security.
In the Netherlands, Wilders has scored sky high in the polls before, only to see his support plummet on voting day. Even if his party does wind up the largest in parliament, he is likely to find it very difficult to form a majority.
In France, too, nobody seriously yet thinks the numbers can add up for Le Pen and Fillon – especially if he moderates the fiercest of his free-market proposals – may well prove the polls right and cruise to a comfortable win.
Planned electoral reforms in Italy should usher in a proportional representation system that means it will be all but impossible for a single party to form a government, and anyway M5S has always refused to take part in any form of coalition.
Merkel convinces Germany’s voters she is their safest choice; Greece – as it always, somehow, has – will pull through; and the EU could finally act on its dawning understanding that if it is to survive, it has to offer concrete answers to citizens’ needs and fears.
It does all add up, though, to a lot of “ifs”, “mays”, “buts” and “coulds”. A wind of anxious, resentful, anti politics-as-usual change is blowing across Europe. It would be surprising if it does not claim at least some more establishment victims.
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