Europe: Terror, migration dominate 2015

For Europe, 2015 was marked by terrorism and migration. Events in Paris at the end of the year made an indelible mark not only on Francois Hollande’s presidency, but on France’s relations to the world.

In the first week of January, two brothers — Said and Cherif Kouachi — forced their way into the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical machine, carrying assault rifles. They shot dead 11 members of staff, including cartoonists and the editor-in-chief, and injured 11 others before making their escape. Outside the building, they shot and killed Ahmed Merabet, one of the first French police officers to respond to the alert.

Working in parallel to them was Amedy Coulibaly, who shot dead another police officer in a nearby Paris suburb.

French authorities launched a massive manhunt for the men. The search for the Kouachi brothers culminated in a siege at a factory 35 kilometers northeast of Paris. The brothers killed four shoppers and took more than a dozen others hostage at a Jewish-owned supermarket in the French capital. All three men were shot dead by police.

The attacks were one of the worst acts of terror in French history and had a profound effect on the country’s national consciousness. But they were to be chillingly surpassed: in August, a gunman carrying at assault rifle attempted a massacre onboard a train travelling from Amsterdam to Paris; he was prevented by other passengers at the last minute. And in November, an organized network of gunmen mowed people down in restaurants, bars and a rock concert in Paris, killing 130 people and injuring hundreds more.

November’s shootings had become the deadliest terror attack in the country’s history and prompted President Hollande to declare war on the group. France began airstrikes on Daesh targets in Syria and Iraq within hours.

2015 was also a year for parliamentary elections in a number of European countries, each producing shifts to different ends of the political spectrum.

Voters in Greece went to the polls three times this year — beginning in January, when they granted a resounding victory to Syriza, the far-left party of Alexis Tsipras, who opposed the deals to bail the country out of its debt crisis. Tspiras initially refused to strike a deal with Greece’s European creditors and was backed by his people in a referendum in July, but was eventually forced to conclude another bailout.

His more radical Syriza colleagues deserted him over the agreement, depriving him of his parliamentary majority, but Tsipras emerged victorious again from the second general election of the year, held in September.

Elections in Spain deprived the center-right People’s Party of its majority and shattered the traditional two-party system that had governed the country since the end of fascism in the 1970s. Two smaller parties — the left-wing Podemos and Ciudadanos, a centrist group — made strong gains, meaning coalition negotiations will dominate the start of the New Year.

A coalition was widely predicted as the outcome of Britain’s general election in May, but commentators were confounded when David Cameron’s center-right Conservatives won with a slim but outright majority. The result meant Cameron had to set to work on one of his flagship manifesto promises: to hold a referendum on the U.K.’s position inside the European Union following a renegotiation of the country’s membership terms. That vote could take place as early as the summer of 2016.

The British election produced a surge for the Scottish Nationalists, who won 56 of the 59 available seats in Scotland, and misery for the center-left Labour and centrist Liberal Democrat parties. The electoral system meant that the right-wing U.K. Independence Party, which supports Britain’s exit from the EU, took nearly four million votes but won just a single seat.

But for Europeans the most defining images in 2015 were those showing thousands of migrants pushing their way deeper into the continent in an attempt to escape the horrors of war in Syria. Over one million people made a perilous journey by sea to reach the continent through the course of the year — the vast majority arriving in Greece, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Most of the migrants pushed their way deeper into Europe by train, bus and even on foot. They were welcomed most emphatically by Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel promised not to put a limit on the number of refugees it would accept. Several EU summits were held to tackle the crisis and some countries struck a deal to distribute the arriving migrants among themselves proportionally; others, such as Britain, opted to implement their own schemes.

The migrants’ integration into their new home countries, particularly in Merkel’s Germany, appears set to be one of the defining stories of 2016.

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