Rethinking Europe

2020: Europe’s Annus Horribilis?

Germany´s Ursula von der Leyen and the European Commission have to overcome five major challenges.

Photo Credit: DutchScenery /


  • A perfect storm is brewing up for Ursula von der Leyen. 2020 is shaping up to be Europe’s annus horribilis.
  • The coronavirus is a grim reaper, especially because it is hitting those EU countries hard that depend on tourism.
  • Turkey and Russia are not only making political life awkward for each other. Each also makes political life for the entire EU very hard.
  • The UK is hiring 50,000 bureaucrats to process customs checks between the UK and the EU. Wasn’t Brexit supposed to get rid of superfluous bureaucracy?

2020 is shaping up to be Europe’s annus horribilis. A perfect storm is brewing up for Ursula von der Leyen. She faces five major crises which she will have to overcome.

Crisis 1: The EU budget

The EU´s always considerable struggles to agree on a new multiannual financial framework are made far worse this time around by the imminent disappearance of the massive net contribution from London.

After an initial round of mild optimism, the mood is turning sour. One reason is the inexperienced EU Council president, Charles Michel, who is in charge of the budget imbroglio.

Michel hails from the French-speaking part of Belgium, a region which has always depended on its richer, more productive Flemish partner regions for transfer payments.

Faced with Michel’s entreaties to be more generous financially, the EU’s northern politicians representing not just Flanders and the Netherlands, but also German-speaking Europe and the Nordic countries may be considered rich and smug by the other members of the EU.

Either way, the rich nations are not prepared to provide yet more financing to countries like Hungary and Poland. The latter not only pour scorn on European laws and values, but also export their unemployed and unemployable bums to Western Europe.

And yet, these CEE nations still expect massive transfers from taxpayers in better-off EU nation states. Expect this row to rumble on.

Crisis 2: The coronavirus

The coronavirus is a grim reaper, especially because it is hitting those EU countries hard that depend on tourism for a significant share of their GDP.

With hotel and flight bookings down, Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Croatia and France get to feel the full force, including no tourists from China. This is economically devastating.

Sports fans are also becoming nervous. In a new experiment to underscore the pan-European spirit, the European soccer championship is due to run in the UK, Italy, Germany and Russia from June 12 to July 12, 2020. If the coronavirus is not brought under control soon, the famed tournament will have to be postponed.

Never mind that, with cities and even regions now in lockdown quarantine, the freedom of movement which the EU proclaims as essential to its very existence could well enter a complete freeze stage.

Crisis 3: European party politics

A key reason why the complex edifice that is the EU has worked at all has been the solidity of dominant center-right and center-left parties, plus a sliver of liberal parties that reliably went about running European affairs.

But this hallmark of the second half of the 20th century is in the throes of crumbling. New populist, identity, nationalist or green parties are winning votes. They are pursuing sets of political priorities for national government and for the EU that are hard to align.

Moreover, the absence of settled leadership in Germany and the Lone Ranger style of President Macron in France mean that the famous German-French axis that provided a solid center for the EU in recent decades simply is no longer there.

Crisis 4: Turkey and Russia

Despite erstwhile illusions to be special partners, Turkey and Russia are not only making political life awkward for each other. Each also makes political life for the entire EU very hard.

Russia’s continued adventurism in Syria, Ukraine, the Black Sea region as well the Eastern and Southern Mediterranean with side plays in the West Balkans is permanently destabilizing.

Turkey is threatening to open fully its frontiers to allow three million Muslim refugees from Afghanistan, Syria and other war-torn Middle and further east broken nations head across borders for Western Europe, principally via Greece.

More than 50 Greek naval vessels and 1,000 Bulgarian soldiers have been sent to try and stop a new wave of immigrants unleashed by Erdogan from arriving in Europe.

Always eager to create yet more havoc, Turkey has also signed a deal with the weak Libyan government in Tripoli by which the two countries claim suzerainty over the Eastern Mediterranean with its potential gas and oil sources.

Meanwhile, Greece, Cyprus and Israel have signed a treaty to create a new pipeline to send gas found in Israeli waters to Europe. This enrages Turkey which won’t accept Greek domination of the Eastern Mediterranean based on the innumerable Greeks islands, some uninhabited, that can be seen from the coast of Turkey.

Of course, the withdrawal of the United States as a stabilizing world power that has occurred under Donald Trump is also unsettling and confusing for all EU nation states.

Crisis 5: Brexit

The final item on Ursula von der Leyen’s crisis agenda is Brexit. Far from Brexit being “done,” as Boris Johnson proclaimed when the UK formally left the EU Treaties on January 31, 2020, it is clear that Brexit is only just beginning to happen.

It seems that Johnson is looking for a major crisis in the middle of the year with threats to pull out of negotiations unless the EU offers him the improbable – i.e., his cake-and-eat-it demands.

There is a weird Trotskyist language used by ministers and senior UK officials about “revolutions” involving Britain leading a charge to reverse EU integration over the last 50 years.

Johnson is insisting that the UK leave the European Arrest warrant scheme, one of the major success stories in fighting transnational crime and terror networks. Because of this scheme, suspects are automatically transferred to countries that issue EU arrest warrants, without being delayed in endless court proceeding to block extradition.

Johnson’s ministers are also angling for a quick free trade deal with the United States, not least to open British supermarket shelves to U.S. food products. They are produced under very different conditions from much higher European standards.

The head of Britain’s National Farmers’ Union has denounced this lowering of high food standards in the UK as “immoral and insane.” The CEO of Nissan Europe says its plant in North East England will close if the UK loses its current access to export freely anywhere in Europe.

Johnson’s ministers do not seem to be fazed. The minister in charge of Brexit has announced the UK will be hiring 50,000 bureaucrats to process the customs checks needed to control goods moving between the UK and Europe.

This move is all the more astounding as the presumable point of leaving the EU had been to rid the UK of so much supposedly superfluous bureaucracy. Hiring – and paying for – these bureaucratic forces on the home front is hardly what the Brexiteers have been expecting.


While handling Brexit — i.e., the exit of a significant EU member state — is a problem Europe has never faced before, Mrs. Von der Leyen and her European Commission certainly have their plate more than full.

Together with low economic growth and insoluble internal problems like fighting over the new EU budget or what to do with Messrs. Trump, Putin and Erdogan as well as the loss of political coherence in most EU member states, 2020 is fast shaping up as potentially one of the worst years in recent European history.

And I haven’t even mentioned all the struggles that will go into making the Green Deal more than a rhetorically grandiose undertaking.

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About Denis MacShane

Denis MacShane is a former UK Minister for Europe, a Contributing Editor at The Globalist -- and author of “Brexiternity: The Uncertain Fate of Britain”.

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