Interior weaknesses, populism, and conflicts tested Europe's endurance in 2022
2022 will go down in history as a pivotal year for Europe in the modern era. After two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, Europe dealt with the effects of internal social and political conflicts, the war in Ukraine, and new conflicts in its neighboring countries.
In Europe, social, economic, and political issues became more perplexing in 2022. One effect of these issues was the continuing strengthening of populist forces everywhere on the continent. The old continent continued to experience the consequences of climate change at the same time.
As if the issues on the continent weren't enough, 2022 went down in the pages of contemporary European history as the year when the biggest military battle to have taken place in the European periphery since the end of World War II began. The prospect of an unchecked escalation of tensions in the Balkans and the Caucasus, two regions with which Europe maintains multifaceted relations, served as the backdrop for the Ukraine war in mid-2022.
The problems are multiplying
The issues brought on by the coronavirus pandemic years were followed in 2022 by a recurrence of the economic crisis, a new energy crisis, and the consequences of climate change. Modern liberal European architecture has revealed significant flaws and holes on these fronts.
After two years of financial and social disruption brought on by the pandemic, 2022 has seen prices rise worldwide. Still, Europe has been particularly hit, placing the region's residents under heavy financial duress. The energy crisis, made worse by Russia's war in Ukraine and rising food prices because of the conflict's effects on Ukraine, a key exporter of food, drove annual inflation in the Eurozone to a record high of 10.7% in October. Annual inflation rose past 20% in nations like Estonia and Lithuania, which are susceptible to fluctuations in energy prices. Inflation in the Eurozone decreased in November, but ECB President Christine Lagarde has cautioned that it may not yet have peaked.
Parallel to the intensifying energy crisis, the inflation issue grew across Europe. The bloc promised to quickly wean itself off the Russian energy supply in response to the conflict in Ukraine. Although not imposing gas restrictions, Europe scrambled to locate substitute supplies after Moscow shut down the Nord Stream 1 pipeline in retaliation for penalties. The EU implemented an energy-saving plan, reached agreements with trusted partners to replace Russian fossil fuel, and established a unified purchasing platform for gas to reduce prices to ensure it would have adequate supply during the winter. The European Commission recently unveiled an action plan called REPowerEU to hasten the bloc's energy transition and reduce its reliance on Russian fossil fuels by 2027 while addressing the climate catastrophe.
The old continent had to deal with the Qatargate scandal toward the end of the year, besides the economic and energy crises. Morocco and Qatar are allegedly involved in organized crime, money laundering, and corruption involving European politicians, political staffers, lobbyists, civil workers, and their families for influence in the European Parliament. Four people have been accused of the alleged crimes, and law enforcement officials in Belgium, Italy, and Greece have recovered €1.5 million in cash, along with laptops and mobile phones. Qatar disputes the charges.
In 2022, Europe also dealt with the effects of climate change. Parts of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa experienced wildfires from June to August 2022. Most fires hit Mediterranean countries, with Algeria, France, Greece, Portugal, and Spain being the most severely affected.
The march of populism from Scandinavia to central Europe
Undoubtedly, the issues outlined above during 2022 aided the growth of populist forces across Europe. Despite Emmanuel Macron's continued leadership in France (most European observers view Macron as a centrist, liberal political figure), populism and the extreme right gained ground throughout Europe this year, from Scandinavia to Italy and central Europe.
On April 10 and 24, 2022, France held its presidential election. Since no candidate received a majority of the vote in the first round, a runoff election was held. In this election, Emmanuel Macron defeated Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French far-right, and was re-elected as president of France. Le Pen came in second with 23.2% of the vote, trailing Macron in the first round with 27.9%. With a smaller margin than in the 2017 election, Macron defeated Le Pen in the second round, 58.5% against her 41.5%.
The French legislative elections, which were conducted on June 12 and 19, 2022, came after the presidential elections. The elections resulted in significant changes in France's political life. For the first time since 1997, the incumbent French president does not have an absolute majority in Parliament. A hung parliament was created for the first time since 1988, when no alliance could secure a majority. Political observers saw the results as a crushing defeat for Macron. They increased the likelihood of political turbulence and instability. They helped the French far-right gain ground in the country's political landscape.
On April 3, 2022, Hungary had parliamentary elections, while France was preoccupied with its presidential and legislative elections. On election night, Hungary's incumbent prime minister, Viktor Orbán, declared victory, with his Fidesz party commanding a sizable majority of the vote. Fidesz achieved the most significant vote share of any party since communism's collapse in 1989, garnering 54% of the popular vote.
To choose the 349 members of the Riksdag, general elections were held in Sweden on September 11, 2022, a few months following the new victories of populist movements in France and Hungary. The Social Democrats won the most votes, followed by the Sweden Democrats, a party with fascist and 1990s Swedish neo-Nazi movement roots.
A few days after the Swedish Social Democrats' electoral success, Giorgia Meloni was elected as the first far-right leader of Italy since the end of the Second World War. She was sworn into office as a member of a right-wing coalition alongside Silvio Berlusconi's Let's Go Italy (Forza Italia), Matteo Salvini's Northern League (Lega Nord), and the European Union's founding member, raising concerns of Euros At the end of September voting, Meloni's Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d'Italia) became the largest party.
Conflicts at Europe's borders
Besides severe internal turbulences in 2022, Europe faced a massive conflict and high tension along its eastern borders. During the year, Europe had to deal with a major war and the humanitarian crisis left behind by fighting in Ukraine for the first time since the conclusion of World War II.
Late February 2022 saw the start of Europe's continuing refugee crisis following Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Nearly 7.9 million refugees from Ukraine have been registered across Europe, and by late May, it was projected that 8 million people were internally displaced. By March 20, about a fifth of the nation's residents had left their homes in Ukraine. In Ukraine, 90% of the refugees are women and children. The great majority of refugees first arrived in Ukraine's western neighbors. Then, about 3 million people moved further west to various European nations. Since the parties concerned with the Ukrainian issue could not reopen diplomatic channels in 2022, the humanitarian situation on the border between Ukraine and Europe assumed severe proportions. At the same time, the war in Ukraine continued its uncontrolled and dangerous path.
The European nations took part in significant international conferences in 2022 to manage the Ukrainian conflict. On March 24, 2022, the NATO leaders of state and government met for the Brussels Summit. The gathering was held in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Following the summit, the leaders issued a statement in which they denounced Russian attacks on civilians and urged Moscow to cease its military actions in Ukraine right now. The chiefs of state and governments of NATO members and partner nations also attended the Madrid Summit in June, after the Brussels Summit. The summit saw the adoption of the NATO strategic concept, the 10-year plan that guides the alliance's security tasks and challenges. Russia's position as the "most substantial and direct danger to allies' security and peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area" was underlined in the new strategic blueprint. The summit also opened the way for Finland and Sweden's entrance to NATO.
Europe confronted two areas of high tension on its eastern border in the second half of 2022, besides the conflict in Ukraine. The political and social unrest in the Balkans manifested itself at the beginning of the summer. In Tirana, Albania, in July 2022, groups of citizens protested against corruption and the rising expense of living. A new French proposal for North Macedonia's negotiation framework with the EU and to serve as a compromise agreement between North Macedonia and Bulgaria sparked angry responses from Northern Macedonians a few weeks after this development. Some nationalist and socialist parties, who opposed the EU's proposal to accept the country's negotiating framework, organized the anti-EU protests, which got underway on July 2.
Tensions between Serbia and Kosovo rose at the end of the summer. The Kosovo government and the Serbs in North Kosovo were pushed against one another when the eleven-year validity period for car documents expired on August 1, 2022. A few months later, in response to the most recent political developments, Kosovo Serbs started building barricades in the neighborhoods where they are concentrated. Serbia put its soldiers on war alert in response to the events. Analysts were worried about the potential of a new battle in the region a few days before the end of 2022.
The idea of a new war in Karabakh gained traction in the same period. A series of clashes between Armenian and Azerbaijani troops along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border broke out in September 2022, signaling a significant uptick in the 2021–2022 border conflict between the two countries. Although foreign countries' intervention ended the border clashes, observers do not rule out the potential of a new war soon. While Armenia maintains close relations with Europe, notably France, Azerbaijan stands out as one of the continent's main energy suppliers.