2016 is likely to be a defining year in the history of the European Union. Nearly just one month in to the year and already the evidence is clear: the continued problems caused by the migrant crisis has led to the collapse of open boarders and the British in-out EU campaigns have begun to up their rhetoric as a referendum of Britain’s membership to the organisation looks increasingly likely to place late this year.

When the Second World War came to an end in 1945 it was decided by the powers of Europe that it was necessary for countries in Europe to form a union so that the states were so interdependent, economically and politically, that never again could such a war as disastrous was happen again. In 1950, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, all came together to form the European Coal and Steel Community, and so began the formation of the modern day European Union.

Over the last sixty years the EU has expanded to include a total of 28 nation states and has largely increased its remit to now be the biggest economic and political union in the world. Along its journey towards an “ever closer union”, as it was first described in the 1957 Treaty of Rome, and in most treaties since then, the EU has grown to now hold its own currency in the form of the Euro, boast a free market with minimal barriers to trade between member states and introduce a freedom of movement policy in 1992, which allows workers to freely move between member states. However, if the first few weeks of 2016 are anything to go by, 2016 may see an end to the EU’s “ever closer union” and might actually see a reverse in the intergovernmental organisation’s power and remit.

In 2015 more than a million migrants and refugees entered the EU by land or sea according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) with the EU statistics agency, Eurostat, stating that 942,400 people have claimed asylum.

[su_spoiler title=”The fallout of December’s Spanish elections” style=”simple” icon=”chevron-circle” anchor=”Comment”]After a turbulent 12 months in the European Union – including the sudden humanitarian demands of the international refugee crisis and the on-going threat of Islamic State (Isis) – it is somewhat unsurprising that many national and international newspapers continually return to these stories, certain of a successful headline. However, at what cost comes this easy reliance upon populist news content?

Over the past weeks and months, several important news stories have been relegated to the inside pages, or else completely ignored, by the mainstream European media – and none more so than the political turmoil that is currently overshadowing Spanish politics.

Spain is currently without a government. Despite being ruled by a caretaker government, headed by the prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, elections on 20th December failed to awarding one party a majority and created the most fragmented parliament in the country’s history.

Rajoy’s People’s Party (PP) claimed the most seats, with 123 elected members. However, this still fell short of the majority needed for an overall victory in the 350-seat chamber. The PP’s traditional rivals, the Socialists, came in second place, winning 90 seats overall. Third was the anti austerity Podemos Party with 69 seats; the new, centre-right Ciudadanos Party took 40 seats.

Attempts to form a new government have, as of yet, been unsuccessful. The inevitable disruption of the festive period has been exacerbated by on-going political disputes in the country: primarily, the dispute over Catalonian independence.

Catalonia – the north-eastern region of Spain, home to the city of Barcelona – has long fought for independence from the rest of the country, a position that is resoundingly supported by the region’s people and parliament. This desire for independence has, in recent years, manifested itself as defiance against national government, a tradition that is complicating the present situation.

When sworn into office, members of the Spanish parliament must swear an oath to the king. However, before this parliament opened, Catalonian representatives, along with those from the Basque Country, insisted on taking the oath in their local language. This decision not only elongated the process, but publicly highlighted the divisions between national and regional government.
Furthermore, when King Filipe called an emergency conference of Spanish party leaders in an attempt to form some sort of coalition government, the establishment was embarrassed once more as the regional Catalonian president was sworn in to office having refused to pledge allegiance to the king.

Whilst these conflicts are hampering Felipe’s efforts to form a new government, the pressure is further compounded by the Spanish people. Despite having been without a proper government for more than a month, Spaniards seem reluctant to head to the polls again. A survey by newspaper El País suggested that 61% of the population oppose a re-election, a decision that many seem sensible given that polls suggest that any second vote would return a similar result. It seems that nobody is happy, but very little can be done to resolve the issues.

Whilst most European leaders and newspapers, have been involving themselves in a battle of words over Isis and the refugee crisis, the pressure of media attention may be something that is desperately needed in Spain. At time when the EU should be united, domestic factions such as these could potentially pose a threat to the wider, international political situation, and the cohesion of an already divided union.
Caitlin Doherty, Global Editor[/su_spoiler]

The unprecedented number of refugees making their way to the EU has caused tensions between member states over how to best deal with the problem. In September last year EU ministers voted in favour of relocating 120,00 refugees across the EU. However, those countries worst affected by the crisis, most notably Greece, Italy and Hungary where the majority of migrants enter the EU have expressed their fear that they are still not receiving enough support to cope with the number of refugees entering the EU and are being disproportionately hit by the burden of the crisis.
Further, there has been annoyance at the UK’s decision not to participate in the EU’s relocation plans, instead opting for their own quota system, promising to take in up to 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020.

The lack of a coherent response to the issue supported by all member states has caused some leaders of Europe to fear that the refugee crisis could be the undoing of the EU. “We need to get a grip on this issue in the next six to eight weeks” argued the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, at the Davos summit last week. ““We can’t cope with the numbers any longer. We need to get a grip on this”.

The French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, has also warned against the EU’s inability to co-ordinate an agreed response: “If Europe is not capable of protecting its own borders, it’s the very idea of Europe that will be questioned”.

So desperate are European leaders to find a solution to the issue that they have even mooted the idea of suspending the EU’s trademark Schengen system for two years under emergency measures. The Schengen rules came into place over 30 years ago, allowing for passport-free travel across 26 states within the EU and has long been seen as an essential pillar to the EU’s commitment to freedom of movement. Germany, Sweden, Austria, France, Denmark have already introduced emergency passport checks, along with Norway, who are not a part of the EU but is a part of the Schengen agreement.

The potential breakdown of freedom of movement has not been the only bleak moment for the EU so far in 2016. The UK’s in-out of the EU referendum promised by the British government by the end of 2017 is looking likely to take place later this year following the Prime Minister’s announcement that he is “hopeful” a renegotiation deal on the terms of the Britain’s membership to the EU may be reached by the end of February. Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme David Cameron said: “I would like to see, is a deal in February, then a referendum that would follow”.

The belief that the referendum will happen sooner rather than alter has led to a several groups campaigning for the UK to leave the EU to launch since the turn of the year. Most recently, “Grassroots-out”, a cross-party group supported by Ukip leader Nigel Farage, Labour MP Kate Hoey and Conservative MP Liam Fox, was launched in Northamptonshire. The new group now sits alongside the “Vote Leave” and “Leave.EU” groups which are also campaigning for Britain to exit the EU. Recent polling by YouGov indicates that the British public is currently split over the vote with 51% being in favour of remaining in the EU and 49% planning to vote “out”. The UK is a major contributor to the EU and the state’s exit would be a massive blow for the supranational organisation.

2016 is bound to prove a challenge for the EU. Never before has a nation exited the EU, as equally, never has the organisation had to ‘reverse’ legislation. The possibility of the suspension of Schengen and Britain’s exit from the EU is therefore unprecedented and does not just propose a threat to the EU’s aim of an “ever closer union” but to the European Union itself. Whether either of these two scenarios come about is yet to be seen, but regardless of their outcomes, 2016 will be a year that will be forever remembered in the history books of the EU.