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2020: What Lies Ahead for Southern European Nations?

With a new decade approaching, change appears to be awaiting Southern Europe. With four out of seven South EU Summit nations possessing governments less than six months old, administrations such as Cyprus and Malta facing severe challenges, and France seeking to push forward serious reforms amidst protest, 2020 is anyone’s game.

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France

As Brexit continues to engulf European headlines and major EU players such as Italy, Spain, and Germany continue to be racked by political uncertainty, France has seized the opportunity to become a driving force behind EU policy in terms of international relations, Brexit, and security.

While French President Emmanuel Macron’s approval ratings have rebounded since the darkest days of last year’s yellow-vest protests, the President is still considered by many to be a symbol of elitism. Several weeks ago, 800,000 people took to the streets to protest the current administration’s proposed pension reforms. As riots ensued, public transportation came to a standstill and health and education services stalled; trade unions, on the other hand, led protests responsible for sabotaging power supply in some areas. For many years, the country has offered a substantial retirement programme to its citizens; one which many are reluctant to let go of. And yet, the system is set to run a deficit of over 17 billion euros by 2025 unless a significant overhaul of the arrangement is undertaken soon.

Macron has been resolute in tackling difficult issues such as corporate tax, and staunch on Brexit – insisting that the European Union stick to the original withdrawal agreement and not leave member states like Ireland vulnerable to undue pressure from London. The president has also ruffled international feathers with his comments on NATO, insisting that Europe needs to stand on its own in terms of security and defence. He has been a fierce critic of Turkey’s actions in Syria but has thawed in his stance towards Russia, greeting President Vladimir Putin on the fringes of the G7 while spearheading efforts to find a solution to the ongoing Ukrainian crisis.

The new year stands as the halfway point in Macron’s presidency. It is likely he is eager to progress on resolving domestic issues well before the 2022 re-election campaign, while continuing to lead the way on European liberalism, international law and order, and climate change.

Italy

In Italy, the year drew to a close with Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte leading a coalition of his Democratic Party (PD) alongside the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement (M5S). This follows on the heels of a tumultuous early autumn, which saw the collapse of the previous M5S coalition with the populist Lega Nord party – led by the strident Matteo Salvini serving as Deputy Prime Minister – and Giuseppe Conte as Prime Minister, following an agreement between coalition partners.

When the Lega pulled their support from Conte, a coalition between the PD and M5S, with support from other left leaning groups, prevented the need for new elections. While this has side-lined Salvini for the moment, polls suggest his party is more popular than ever, particularly in northern Italy. Meanwhile, in May’s European elections, the Lega won more seats than anyone else, pulling 34 percent of the vote, despite the party’s firm criticism of the EU and globalisation.

The new year is likely to bring more uncertainty to the Italian government, with Salvini undoubtedly eyeing any election as a chance to sweep to power as Prime Minister. Ranged against the Lega are several political groups who have unified in a bid to combat the party’s growing influence. As ever, Italian politics will ensure an interesting 2020.

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In 2019, Greece managed to successfully turn a new leaf and has welcomed growth and the end of austerity in its country. As a new year rounds the corner, citizens are looking to 2020 with optimism. Copyright: Giannis Papanikos / Shuttershock.com

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Spain

Further south across the Pyrenees, in November Spain’s fourth election in as many years delivered even more uncertainty, with no clear path for the party with the largest number of seats in parliament, the Socialists (PSOE), to form an administration.

Incumbent President Pedro Sanchez has been pushed towards the left by a resurgent centre-right (PP) and a strident far-right (Vox). And while Sanchez has a tacit agreement with the far-left Unidas Podemos party ahead of a looming investiture vote, he also requires cooperation from the ERC – Catalan nationalists who are sure to push hard for compromises, either on talks or in relation to the thorny issue of the recently jailed leaders of the Catalonian independence revolt.

On December 11th, King Felipe VI nominated Sanchez as the leader most likely to secure an agreement to form a government, but this remains uncertain. The investiture vote is set to take place on January 7th, with investiture debates scheduled for the 4th and 6th. If all goes as planned, Spain with have its first coalition government since its return to democracy in 1977.

This year saw Madrid host climate summit COP25 after Chile was forced to withdraw due to civil unrest in the country. Over 25,000 politicians and influencers attended the nearly two-week long summit – including activist Greta Thunberg, who travelled to Spain by way of a solar-powered yacht.

With the date of the vote and the shape of any future administration equally uncertain, 2020 will dawn with the shape of Spanish politics in flux.

Portugal

The re-election of Portugal’s Socialist Prime Minister Antonio Costa in October ushered in a consecutive stable government for the resilient Iberian state.

Over the past four years, the stability of the Lisbon administration has brought down the budget deficit to its lowest point in the country’s recent history. The Socialists have also seen Portugal re-emerge as an international power, along with a sizeable drop in unemployment. The country is currently overseeing the development of Southern Europe’s most ambitious and dynamic green economy, which teems with innovative eco-friendly policies in Lisbon and surrounding cities, to the creation of technology capable of harnessing the power of waves on the country’s Atlantic coast.

Challenges remain, however, and Portugal is still a relatively poor country by western European standards. The Socialists aim to increase the minimum monthly salary to 750 euros over the term of their administration, but this will still stand as western Europe’s lowest wage.

Portugal is also facing pressure over lithium mining in the country, and resources of the valuable mineral have triggered an explosion in mining investment. Public debt remains high, well above GDP. Prime Minister Costa has said that cutting debt down is a priority, while continued growth is needed to bring about economic and social convergence with other EU nations.

With a stable administration and established policies, Portugal can look to 2020 with a definite plan in place.

Greece

Greece has experienced seismic change in 2019, successfully turning a page on a decade of austerity. With this comes new optimism in Greece’s capital that the country is ready to grow and develop its potential as a natural bridge between the EU and the Middle East.

The landslide election victory of the New Democracy party in July’s snap election brought an end to almost five years of Syriza rule under former Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. Originally elected to push back against austerity, Syriza was forced to implement the worst of it. Tsipras has been credited, however, for stabilising the country during the largest threat it has faced since the military-led junta of the 1970’s. He also faced down the far-right Golden Dawn movement, which vanished from the electoral map in last summer’s elections, and brought a decades old dispute with the now North Macedonia to an end via the Prespa agreement.

Greece’s new Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, is a business focused, pro-EU politician keen on reopening the Mediterranean country to the world. His priorities include reforming tax laws and the high corporate tax rate to make it easier to conduct business. In addition to strengthening EU integration, Mitsotakis plans to lobby the Union to re-examine its decision to freeze enlargement talks in the Western Balkans. He also aims to cement Greece as the United States’ partner of choice in Southern Europe.

In terms of foreign policy, the strident rhetoric of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his actions in the Mediterranean has led Greece to build up its military, and a plan was recently formed to acquire three UAV’s from the US, and two drones from Israel.

Even still, 2020 will dawn with a new optimism in Greece, and the country’s re-emergence is a welcome one for Europe as a whole.

Cyprus

It has been a fractious year in Cyprus, with Turkish sabre rattling in the north of the country and the island’s gas-rich waters being subject to unwelcome, and illegal, Turkish drilling incursions. Talks to bridge the divide between the Cypriot Republic to the south and the occupied Turkish territories in the northwest, have not yielded any serious progress.

Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and his administration have received backing from allies in Greece, its EU partners, and the United States, yet find themselves in a difficult situation when challenged directly by Turkey. Allies in the EU have openly criticised Turkey for its actions, as has the US. But Anastasiades will need to balance his responses and continue to keep channels open to both Ankara and his Turkish-Cypriot counterparts in the north of Nicosia – the world’s only remaining, divided capital.

Anastasiades and his government will not have to face the electorate until 2021, at which time citizens will assess his handling of Turkey, as well as the economy, which has rebounded positively from the financial crisis and recently recorded its fifth consecutive annual growth phase.

Meanwhile, the discovery of hydrocarbons has led to international investment by a number of energy companies. Energy giant ExxonMobil, in partnership with Qatar Petroleum, announced a gas discovery in early 2019 containing anywhere from 5 to 8 trillion square feet of natural gas. Moreover, Italy’s Eni and France’s Total teamed up later on in the year to expand the search for underwater gas reverses, and now have licenses to explore seven of Cyprus’ thirteen blocks.

Contention and difficulties presented by Turkey put aside, the presence and potential of gas in Cyprus’ EEZ is a positive one.

Malta

The murder of investigative, anti-corruption journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia and the subsequent investigation that followed her death, has placed international spotlight on the Maltese government and Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, who has served as leader of the island nation since 2013.

Under Muscat’s watch, Malta has transformed its economy into a robust, services-driven engine, with growth in sectors such as technology and gaming. Still, some are apprehensive over the country’s cyber security, financial transparency, and liberal citizenship laws in return for investment. Recent developments in the murder of Caruana Galizia have pointed to involvement from those within government. While there has been no evidence to suggest the Prime Minister’s involvement, Muscat has said that he will step down in January 2020.

The new year will dawn with an internal process within the Labour Party to find a new prime minister. Uncertainty surrounding the ongoing investigation into Galizia’s murder, and the shape of the country’s future leadership, indicates a turbulent start to 2020 for the island archipelago.

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Ruairi Kavanagh

Ruairi is an Irish writer, editor and author with 25 years of experience across national and specialist media. He specialises in reporting on matters relating to education, development,emergency services, international affairs, defence and security with particular interest in European affairs, the Balkan region, the Middle East and Africa.

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