To start with one of those fascinating facts about the European Union in general in the course of the year 2013, the 12 months of next year represent the prelude to the Greek Presidency of the EU in the first half of 2014.
But let us not rush ahead of ourselves. This is a story about the countries that will spend 2013 inside the EU and those that will spend 2013 outside it, and one that will do both.
Croatia, the poster boy for meeting the requirements of EU enlargement, will become the bloc’s 28th member at the beginning of July, as Lithuania takes over the presidency of the Union. The beginning of that warm month may prompt another round of horror stories by the Daily Mail and the Sun about Western (or British) civilisation being assailed by another horde of dodgy Eastern Europeans, but it is equally likely to bring another torrent of platitudes from EU chieftains about just what may be achieved if one plays by the rules.
This symbolic event aside, 2013 holds a number of landmark events, or at least events that hold the promise of landmarks.
This article is about the likely prospects for two sets of countries in Central and South Eastern Europe, widely defined. In the EU, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Greece and not to forget Bulgaria. Outside the EU, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, Moldova, Turkey, Ukraine, Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro.
It is also about those events that will have a bearing on the relations between Central and Eastern Europe and the EU.
There will be, among other things, elections of various kinds in eight countries (perhaps more, depending on factors and events that may not now be predicted) that in some way or another could have implications for the wider workings of Europe.
Germany has federal elections in September or October. At this point, it would be foolhardy to seek to predict the outcome, but at this point probably also foolhardy to imagine that Germany’s electorate would remove Angela Merkel from the European stage or, more immediately to German interests, from the nice leather chair with the view in the Chancellery in Berlin.
From this we may extrapolate, if we dare, that the close of 2013 will find the leadership of Europe’s heavyweight in the same hands as now – the person who has brought to the CDU/CSU the greatest stability and determined forcefulness that it has had since Kohl.
But this is not about German politics, however much that moment weighs on the future of Europe, as much as about what may happen in the countries of the wider region beyond Western Europe.
Georgia has an election too, in October, to choose a president. Will this represent closure of the episode that brought Bidzina Ivanishvili to the head of government, as the star of current president Mikheil Saakashvili appeared, in the autumn of 2012, headed for decline? We shall see.
Yes, there are other elections too, in 2013: Albania (parliamentary, in June), Armenia (presidential), Azerbaijan (presidential), Czech Republic (opening the European political year, in January, with a presidential election), Norway (parliamentary, September). Few, if any, will have any bearing on the future direction of Europe and its Eastern reaches, any more than the outcome of the world wife-carrying contest (Finland, first Friday in July, for two days, contact your travel agent now).
In real terms, the shape of Europe and the performance of the less wealthy regions of Central and Eastern Europe will depend on continuing grappling with the euro zone. There has been more than one prediction that talk in 2013 regarding the future of the “common” European currency will likely find Spain more in focus than Greece. Prepare yourself for more headlines about “make or break” European Council meetings, just with the name of a different country in the first paragraph.
Notably, of EU members in Eastern Europe, all but Greece do not use the euro – Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria all still have their national currencies, however much it may be a debatable point as to whether the real currency of the EU is the euro, because so much of its performance (and preoccupations) stand and fall on the performance of that currency. Still, it is likely that all of these countries will continue to take a reserved approach on the question of eventual accession to the euro – perhaps less so in the case of a Hungary, with its own severe economic troubles, than Poland, which has much more leeway and famously the best-performing economy in the face of the crisis of these past few years.
That is economics, and so to pure European politics, the politics of expansion, of the wider embrace of the EU.
Watch the steps taken or not taken on the road to Vilnius in November 2013, when the Eastern Partnership summit is held.
Ahead of that event in Lithuania, six countries have been sent an abundantly clear message about the imperative of reforms if they have genuine aspirations regarding visa-free travel and progress in association agreements. They are the countries of the Eastern Parternship – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.
They have a Roadmap Plan, agreed with EU ministers in July 2012, but even at this remove we may fairly consider which have it in their power to make genuine progress and which, er, not.
On the positive side, Poland has sent an encouraging message to Moldova about what could be ahead of it in terms of a visa exemption agreement and an association agreement ahead of Vilnius. At current reading, prospects for Belarus and Ukraine are, to put it mildly, less bright. As to Armenia and Azerbaijan, it is to be hoped that they have received and fully understood the message from the EU about the essential need for nicer talk and well, the fact that the EU welcomes war talk with trepidation, if not carefully-crafted condemnation.
Elsewhere, as to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo (the asterisk country, as it may be termed, given multilateral organisations that append one whenever there is a hint at its status), Turkey, Macedonia (another asterisk country, qv former Yugoslav Republic of, see also Name Dispute) and Montenegro, they have their most recent European Commission progress reports to take home, read, act on, or effectively ignore, as each capital may see fit. At random, if 2013 follows the pattern of 2012, it is doubtful that Ankara would determine its policies according to the principle of “but what would Brussels think?”; it is an open question whether Skopje will finally run the expression “good neighbourliness” through Google Translate (“добрососедството” as it turns out) or whether Serbia and Kosovo can move on to a realpolitik where language and labels may differ but a guiding principle of a better future for the Western Balkans could prevail.
By the way, the list of elections above omitted Bulgaria, which has its own national parliamentary elections too, around the middle of the year. This has a bearing on the year for the EU and the countries without, because since early 2010 Sofia has been underlining (to the point of monomania) its earnest desire to see the Western Balkans on the path to Euro-Atlantic integration and its willingness to share lessons learnt on its own path. Should the current government in Sofia remain in office, it is arguably probable that Bulgaria’s policy (and determined reiteration of the message) in this respect will remain in place, with the factor of it being pursued dynamically – as opposed to the previous Bulgarian government, which paid lip service to the notion but pursued it only with all the alacrity, vision and drive of a smudge of porridge on a map of Europe.
Who can say what 2013 holds for Europe, and Central and South Eastern Europe in particular? Because the dynamics of Europe are not just a parochial matter of differing neighbourhoods, some the lands of the urban Mercedes and the smartphone and others the land of the rural donkey-cart and the hand-held plough. Because there are bigger dynamics, the exercise of Russian power and ambition, the unknown unknowns of what will happen in the Middle East and North Africa, the southern neighbourhood that, in part, will shape the future of Europe as Europe seeks to shape the future of its eastern neighbourhood.
Because, as we who live in Europe head inexorably towards 2013, we have a few vague but important lessons to take from 2012; that the future of the continent is not decided solely by directives and statements from within the Berlaymont building; that democracy remains a term to be used and abused (I am looking at you, Lukashenko, and not only you) as required; and that “good neighbourliness” is an emotion that has severe competition from others.
We shall meet at this place and time in December 2013. I would like to have good news to report; fruitful dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina; concrete achievements recorded in the autumn regular reports by the European Commission on the countries of the Western Balkans and other accession wannabes; a euro zone that has returned to being an anchor of stability and investment for Europe’s less flashy quarters; courts and prisons in Belarus and Ukraine that are not kept busy by political considerations; liberalised visa regimes and Stabilisation and Association Agreements signed in capitals to the east of what is grossly inaccurately termed the “Old Continent” and, dare we hope, a resolution to the dreary and tiresome Macedonia Name Dispute.
After all, the EU and its leaders cannot be preoccupied with Eastern Europe forever. There is 2014 to look forward to, and the compelling question, after autumn of that year, of whether Scotland will be seeking EU accession.
(Main photo: Signing ceremony of an Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU March 2012: European Union)