Putin, Trump, elections and migrant crisis on the radar

Dr Merkel may still be Germany's most popular politician but she is also increasingly vulnerable. Her re-election next year is not a done deal. 2016 may have gone swimmingly for Mr Putin but the tide could well change in the coming year.
Dr Merkel may still be Germany's most popular politician but she is also increasingly vulnerable. Her re-election next year is not a done deal. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Dr Merkel may still be Germany's most popular politician but she is also increasingly vulnerable. Her re-election next year is not a done deal. 2016 may have gone swimmingly for Mr Putin but the tide could well change in the coming year.
2016 may have gone swimmingly for Mr Putin but the tide could well change in the coming year.PHOTO: REUTERS

THE RISE AND RISE OF PUTIN

"The Year That Putin Won" was how Moscow Times, Russia's premier English-language newspaper entitled its special year-end issue. And with good reasons, for President Vladimir Putin seems to have hit the jackpot on every gamble he took this year.

He gambled that his military intervention in Syria would succeed in propping up its government without embroiling Russia in a wider war, and he was right. He took a risk in allowing his intelligence services to dabble in the US presidential elections, and was rewarded with Mr Donald Trump's triumph.

Still, that does not mean 2017 will be an easy one for Russia. It is uncertain that oil prices, Russia's most important export commodity, will recover sufficiently to balance the country's budget. The economy has been in recession for three consecutive years, and even if it begins to recover next year, Mr Putin has no strategy to address its fundamental weaknesses.

And although the US President- elect might appear friendly, he is also less predictable than his predecessors. In short, Mr Putin would be well advised to heed that traditional warning to investors: Past performance is not necessarily a reliable guide to the future.

MERKEL'S BIG TEST

Germany's general election due in October is Europe's most significant political landmark in 2017. The re-election of Chancellor Angela Merkel is seen as crucial to the functioning of the European Union.

Dr Merkel remains in a strong position: She is Germany's most popular politician. But she is also increasingly vulnerable. Her 2015 decision to open the country's borders to asylum seekers has triggered much criticism; any further terrorist attacks in Germany could severely undermine her position. And although the German economy continues to grow, the country remains exposed to fresh euro crises.

As a result, Dr Merkel's electoral victory is hardly a done deal; she still risks being either dethroned by a left-leaning coalition or forced into a coalition she does not want, with serious consequences for the coherence of German policies.

HOW TO DEAL WITH TRUMP?

Although relations between Europe and the United States have frequently been rocky, they always appeared manageable. Mr Trump's election upended all that: The Europeans simply do not know how to deal with a man they do not understand, and who holds views most Europeans consider repugnant.

Two schools of thought are dividing Europe. On one side is a group of countries, led by Germany and France, which argues that Europe should tell Mr Trump very early on in his presidency that there are limits to what the continent can tolerate from the US. But on the other side is a group of nations, championed by Britain, which says the best way of influencing Mr Trump's administration is by being its best and often uncritical friend.

Europeans will soon discover which strategy works best. Still, there is a grudging realisation in most European capitals that relations across the Atlantic will never be the same again, and that one of the continent's biggest challenges in the years to come is how to cool down the anti-American tendencies that Mr Trump is likely to rekindle among many European nations.

A VERY BRUISING ELECTION

In theory, France faces a straight choice in its forthcoming two- phase presidential elections, scheduled for April and May, between Mr Francois Fillon, a centre-right candidate, and Ms Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right, anti-immigrant National Front. And in theory, Mr Fillon should win, by attracting in the second ballot all the votes of those keen to prevent Ms Le Pen from coming to power.

But these are unpredictable times. A fearsome campaigner, Ms Le Pen is already outflanking opponents by positioning herself as a defender of workers against Mr Fillon's promises of radical economic reform. Mr Trump's triumph in the US could also embolden French voters to experiment with an untested politician such as Ms Le Pen. And Britain's decision to leave the EU could embolden the French, too; Ms Le Pen has promised her people a British-style referendum.

There are only two certainties ahead: The campaign will be deeply personal and dirty, and nobody will put much faith in what opinion pollsters will be predicting.

MIGRANTS: NO EASY SOLUTION

The recent attack on a Christmas market in Berlin confirmed all the fears Europeans have about migration. The horror was allegedly perpetrated by a Tunisian, a reminder that many of those seeking asylum in Europe are not refugees from war zones. The alleged perpetrator had been refused asylum in Germany but was not deported because his passport had expired, a reminder of the absurdities of Europe's immigration procedures.

The coming year will see Europe facing more, rather than less, migratory pressures. Political instability in Turkey could reopen one of the biggest migratory routes. Also, there is no evidence that the turmoil in Africa will abate. And the wealth disparities between Europe and its neighbours will ensure that the continent will remain a magnet for migrants.

It is almost tempting to suggest that Europe's populist politicians who claim to have a secret recipe for stopping this migratory pressure should be allowed to taste power - if only to discredit the idea that the continent's immigration problem has a neat solution.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 29, 2016, with the headline 'Putin, Trump, elections and migrant crisis on the radar'. Print Edition | Subscribe