From Putin to the pope: Europe's year in review

2015 is likely to have more in common with 2014 than Europeans may want, with tensions over Ukraine, sanctions, and worries about Islamic extremism in little danger of dissipating.

Efrem Lukatsky/AP
Ukrainian army soldiers pose for photo with volunteers at a check point in eastern Ukraine on Sunday. The conflict in the region was one of Europe's biggest new stories in 2014.

Europe has been the stage for some of the most important news stories of 2014, from the crisis in Ukraine and the rise of a revanchist Russia to the growing clout of populists driven by deep frustration over economic stagnation and anti-immigrant sentiment. None of these stories are finished business, of course, as tensions still simmer from Madrid to Moscow. The news of 2014 promises to shape the headlines of 2015, as the direction of a Continent whose values are being sharply tested remains unclear.

Russia

When Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea in March, Europe was dumbfounded by an act that seemed to bring back the border disputes of the cold war.

The move quickly morphed into a geopolitical conflict, largely between Russia and the United States. But it remains first and foremost Europe’s problem: its borders have changed, and it's far more dependent on the Russian economy than the US, which means it has a bigger stick to wield but also far more to lose.

The EU's response to Russia continues to strain its declarations of unity, with some nations pushing much harder for sanctions than others more concerned about economic repercussions.

A stronger sense of solidarity emerged only in July, after a Malaysia Airlines plane flying from Amsterdam was shot down over eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russia rebels are entrenched. But that could be undermined again, as Russia’s economy weakens and its effect are felt more widely. And a big unknown still looms: What are Mr. Putin’s longterm intentions in Europe, from eastern Ukraine to the Baltics and beyond?

European jihadis

Young men have always headed into the heart of foreign conflict, drawn by a heady mix of conviction and sense of adventure. But Europe was shocked this year when authorities started to uncover a troubling trend: hundreds of EU citizens leaving the comfort of their communities to take up arms in Syria, many alongside the self-described Islamic State.

The conflict is not just drawing young men but women, teenage girls and boys, and entire families. Some European jihadis were not born Muslim but were radicalized and converted at home.

Now they are classified by European officials as the No. 1 homeland security threat, with countries rushing to toughen laws to track and deter radicalized Europeans from leaving or returning home. Europe’s Muslim communities now worry that fear of terrorism will trump efforts at integration and that new prejudices, like the ones seen post-9/11, will flourish.

Populism

European nations have watched the rise of populist parties grow over the years, but it was not until the EU parliamentary elections in May that the bloc faced its first collective wakeup call. Fringe parties, like the National Front in France or the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), won more seats than their mainstream counterparts, and are now testing the political legitimacy of the EU.

Some of their appeal is rooted in a brewing anti-immigrant sentiment that has flashed at various points throughout the year. Fears of “welfare tourism” soared at the turn of last year when all restrictions were dropped for citizens of Romania and Bulgaria, and in the wake of Islamic State atrocities in the name of Islam.

Even in the most unlikely places, such as Germany with its Dresden-based, anti-Islamization movement Pegida, populists are finding new fertile ground. The far right and left are also appealing to Europeans facing record-high unemployment and a stumbling economic recovery.

The next test for mainstream Europe comes from Greece, where the eurozone crisis peaked, after its parliament failed to elect a president in December, prompting new elections. The far-left Syriza is slated to win, according to polls.

Spain's far-left Podemos will also be in the spotlight during the country's 2015 general elections. The same goes for UKIP as British Prime Minister David Cameron seeks reelection this year.

Scottish referendum

The Scottish referendum put the world on edge as Scots voted in September on whether to stay in their 307-year-old union with England. Polls leading up to the race showed that a slight majority might vote to leave – mostly fueled by the desire to live in a country that sets its own agenda, independent from the conservative policies from Westminster.

Their campaign drew attention from secessionists across Europe, who have increasingly voiced anger at what they consider democratic deficits in their countries.

Although Scots ultimately voted to stay, the fact that they were given a chance to go to the polls has been held up as a blueprint across the region. Now what will be watched is how United Kingdom reshapes power-sharing, promises pledged by London in the heat of the race.

Pope in foreign policy

While the EU struggles to find a single voice in foreign affairs, one of its residents has become a central figure on the international stage: Pope Francis.

The pope, the first from Latin America and a leader who has given hope to Catholics who seek a more inclusive church, has now earned diplomatic chops, particularly after the role he played in the historic thawing of relations between the US and Cuba.

He has also waded in some of the world’s most intractable problems, hosting Israeli and Palestinian leaders, speaking out against conflict in eastern Ukraine and violence at the hands of the Islamic State in Syria, and calling the EU “haggard,” at risk of "slowly losing its own soul." He’s put the Catholic Church this year in the foreign policy sphere unlike any time since John Paul II, who, in the 1980s, played a central role in opposing communism.

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