Skip to content Skip to footer

Highlights of 2017, Prospects for 2018

The “highlights” of 2017 are mostly lowlights.

The year began with the inauguration of a racist US president who pledged to build a border wall to keep out Mexican “killers and rapists”, ban Muslims from entering America and tear up the liberal international order in favour of an America First strategy of nationalism, protectionism and xenophobia. While many of Trump’s actions have been symbolic, his clampdown on refugees and immigrants is very real.

2017 was punctuated by grubby deals between the Italian government and Libyan warlords that trap African refugees and migrants in awful conditions, including slavery, while Australia finally closed its illegal detention camp for asylum seekers on the island of Manus, leaving many stranded.

The year ends with the far-right Freedom Party joining Austria’s coalition government, taking the interior ministry (that handles refugee issues), as well as the foreign and defence ministries, a big concern given its formal ties with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party. The coalition is led by 31-year old prime minister Sebastian Kurz, whose ostensibly centre-right party has adopted many of the Freedom Party’s anti-immigrant lines, highlighting how the far-right doesn’t need to win to shape policy.

Fortunately, there has also been some good news. Geert Wilders of the far-right PVV did worse than expected in the Dutch elections, gaining only 13% of the vote. While he dragged the centre-right VVD of prime minister Mark Rutte to the right on immigration, the biggest gains went to unabashedly pro-openness parties, the social liberal D66 and the Green Left party.

Better still, Emmanuel Macron trounced Marine Le Pen of the far-right, anti-EU National Front to become president of France. He took the fight to the xenophobic populists, campaigning in favour of open societies and arguing that the EU, not nationalism, could best protect people.

A moment of humour was Australia’s fiercely nationalistic deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce being forced to seek re-election because it turned out he was also a New Zealand citizen (unfortunately he won). Meanwhile, New Zealand elected a Labour government committed to slashing immigration in coalition with the maverick New Zealand First party.

The ongoing psychodrama has been the slow-motion car-crash that is Brexit. The year began with the nationalist breast-beating of Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech. Half way through, she called an early election and lost her majority.

The year ends with the UK capitulating to the EU’s demands for an orderly withdrawal deal that provides greater certainty for EU citizens in the UK, involves a financial pay-off of up to €60 billion and commits the UK to avoid creating a hard border in Ireland. The chances of the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal have fallen; so have the slim chances that Brexit might not happen.

This psychodrama is set to continue next year. First, Brexiteers will need to accept a standstill transition on EU terms that preserves the economic and legal status quo until the end of 2020 while denying the UK political rights.

Then they will need to come to terms with the fact that they can’t have their cake (control EU migration, end the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, diverge regulations, strike independent trade deals) and eat it (maintain access to EU services markets equivalent to what the UK enjoys in the single market and frictionless goods trade as in the customs union). Hopes for a Canada +++ deal will eventually be dashed.

The moment of truth may again be postponed. Since next year’s negotiations are about agreeing a political declaration on the future post-Brexit relationship (not a full trade deal) and the priority of Brexiteers is to avoid confronting hard trade-offs until after the UK is out of the EU, the likelihood is that a transition on EU terms will be agreed and the outlines of the future relationship will remain blurry.

But it is also possible that Brexiteers will finally be forced to face up to the internal contradictions of their position. One possibility is that the realisation that the UK can’t have its cake and eat it, indeed may have to maintain regulatory alignment with the EU without benefiting from single-market membership, could lead Brexiteers to question the cost of the financial settlement and revive the threat of a no-deal Brexit. Another is that the UK may compromise some of its red lines and head towards a much softer Brexit.

The international trade environment is certainly unconducive to Britain going it alone. President Trump’s protectionism – he has pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, threatens to quit NAFTA and is undermining the World Trade Organisation – makes a Global Britain strategy particularly inopportune.

Indeed next year could see Trump doubling down on economic nationalism if his political difficulties at home grow. Meanwhile the EU continues to strike new trade deals, with Canada, Japan and possibly soon Mexico too. (As Hosuk presciently predicted in July, political agreement on a trade deal with Japan was soon followed by a final deal in December.)

2018 is a quieter year for elections. Vladimir Putin is set to be “re-elected” as Russian president in March. The increasingly authoritarian Viktor Orban has likewise stacked the deck in his favour ahead of the Hungarian elections due in April or May. Sweden’s general election is in September is likely to result in the continuing isolation of the far-right Sweden Democrats.

Meanwhile, Germany’s political vacuum is set to continue for a while, a blow for those pinning their hopes on bold reforms of the EU and eurozone.

The biggest worry is Italy’s election, due by 20 May. The anti-establishment and now increasingly pro-Putin and anti-immigrant Five Star Movement is leading in the polls, though well short of the 40% needed to win a governing majority. A right-wing coalition of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the far-right Northern League and Brothers of Italy could yet muster that magic 40%.

Those of us who believe in open societies again have a difficult year ahead.

Here at OPEN, we started the year with Open Up, a great report on how to fix the flaws in the EU’s digital single market. We followed up the huge success of Refugees Work with Step Up, a big international study on how get refugees into work quickly.

Among other things, we also discussed how to shift negative attitudes towards immigration, highlighted how immigrants boost innovation and enterprise, pointed out the long-term benefits of immigration, questioned the merits of special economic zones for refugees, asked whether World Refugee Day made any difference, argued for a better framework of international rules on migration, and made the case for freedom of movement.

We’ve welcomed some superb new senior fellows and fellows, Iana Dreyer, Marta Bengoa, Guy de Jonquières, Garvan Walshe, Jack Graham and Sam Lowe. We’ve also had fantastic contributions from Rebekah Smith and Jackie Edwards.

We’ve got much more in store next year, not least a big study on how to promote refugee entrepreneurship. We also have other exciting projects that we are still seeking funding for. If you have any leads, please get in touch.

One parting thought. So much of what passes for the debate about openness is actually about deeper social discontent and broad pessimism about the future. Yes, there are many racists, xenophobes and nationalists. But there are also many people who are fearful that robots, the Chinese and immigrants are going to take their jobs and their place in society.

To defend and advance openness, we need to argue for societies that are fair and secure as well as open, that provide opportunities for everyone in society as well as to newcomers. It’s not a battle to defend a flawed status quo, it’s a campaign to build better societies where people feel confident to embrace the world, the future and all the many possibilities for progress.

Have a great festive period, and all the very best for 2018,


Spread the word: please share this with your friends and colleagues and tell them about OPEN.

Contribute: OPEN‘s mission is to defend and advance open liberal societies. If you read anything particularly good that is relevant to our work, please let us know by emailing If you have something interesting and relevant to say and would like to write for our blog, please get in touch too.

Special offer: OPEN is offering new members an e-book on how diversity can help create new ideas and businesses. That offer is open to existing members too; just email us to ask for it.

Leave a comment