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The focus across Europe is on the result of the Italian referendum on constitutional reform, and looking ahead to the Austrian, French and German general elections.
The Italian poll is taking place against the backdrop of a deepening crisis in Italian banks and more of the usual instability that stalks the nation’s politics. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is fighting an uphill battle – riot police had to be drafted in to ensure him safe conduct when he recently visited Naples.
In France, President Hollande has had to bow to the inevitable and announce he will not seek re-election. His Socialist party, under whoever eventually ends up leading it looks set for humiliating rejection. In Austria the Presidential election threatens to deliver a victory for the far-right candidate. The electors of all three countries have the chance to express dissatisfaction with the status quo and to change the European political discourse.
Some of Europe’s most senior leaders seem to have decided that what they discern as a rising tide of nationalism across the continent can be best addressed by “punishing” the United Kingdom for having voted to leave the European Union. An increasingly aggressive and antagonistic tone has been adopted in recent days towards the UK. In adopting this approach these same leaders seem to think they can demonstrate a clear warning to the people’s of continental Europe that if they dare challenge the European Union then they will suffer the same treatment that is now being meted out to the UK. This is an extremely dangerous approach that mis-judges the mood of the citizens of Europe and the resolve of the British. European leaders need to respond to people’s concerns not ride roughshod.
Important as the outcomes of this batch of elections is to the future of European politics, there is one player who has a potentially critical role, whose actions could determine the whole course of the next phase of European history. That is President Erdogan of Turkey.
Recently he publicly mused that he might open Turkey’s borders once again and allow the journey of refugees from his country to begin again. Since the attempted coup aimed at ousting him he has been emboldened. If he does re-open Turkey’s border in the months leading up to the German election the effect on the German electorate could be profound.
It is a mess. Across Europe there is a rising level of discontent with the way the European Union operates. The UK is not aberrational in its scepticism, it’s just unusual in being allowed to have had a vote.
The outcomes of the upcoming votes are likely to have a huge influence on the EU’s future, and the Turkish President’s decision about his border could well be decisive. In all of this Europe’s leaders should discern they need the best possible relationship with the UK as swiftly as possible because it is quite likely Brexit will not be the biggest issue they – and we – have to face.