Top Stories
Top Stories
Business News

Forget the Brexit 'noise,' these are the real risks Europe faces

Left-wing activists protest while neo-Nazis and other right-wing activists march under the banner 'We for Berlin - We for Germany' to protest against German Chancellor Angela Merkel's refugee policy on May 7, 2016.
Carsten Koall/Getty Images

The political and economic "noise" created by the U.K.'s decision to leave the European Union is masking a "large number" of risks in Europe, according to the region's political experts.

"A large number of material political risks in southern and core Europe are being masked by the noise emanating from Brexit," Mujtaba Rahman, managing director of Europe at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, said in a note Thursday.

He and his team were not alone, with other political risk consultancies remarking on the fact that Brexit could in fact be the least of Europe's worries. Here's CNBC's collection of Europe's top ten upcoming risk events, according to analysts.

Greece's economic crisis

A street vendor sits behind used items for sale in Athens, Greece, July 7, 2015.
Christian Hartmann | Reuters

Greece's economic crisis reached a peak in the summer of 2015 when it was forced, by impending bankruptcy, to accept a third 86 billion euro ($96.9 billion) bailout package from international lenders.

A year on and Greece is facing an uphill struggle to meet the conditions of its latest bailout. "The economic and political challenges across southern Europe continue to increase," according to Eurasia Group's Rahman. (103880026) "While Greece will of course struggle, the debate between (main political party) Syriza and its creditors is no different to the one that took place last year. As such, Greece is in something of a Groundhog Day."

Spain’s political mess

Pierre-Philippe Marcou | AFP | Getty Images

Spain's economy might be booming compared to its euro zone peers (it expanded more than Germany, France and Italy in the second quarter of this year). However, an ongoing political impasse in the country threatens to derail that growth, with the country potentially facing a third general election in 12 months by the end of the year.

"A third round of elections remains the most probable scenario (55 percent probability)," according to Antonio Barroso, deputy director of research at political risk consultancy Teneo Intelligence. "Short of an internal revolt within the PSOE (Socialist party) or a deal between the ruling People's Party (PP) and Basque nationalists (which would allow a government to be formed)."

‘Catalonia is back’

Demonstrators hold a giant banner and Catalan independence flags during a protest at the Pedralbes Palace in Barcelona on October 23, 2013.
Josep Lago | AFP | Getty Images

Aside from national political deadlock in Spain, the question of Catalonia's independence movement rumbles on. The separatist movement in the wealthy north Spanish state has long been a thorn in the side of Madrid and that clash is set to continue, Teneo's Barroso warned.

"Catalan authorities will likely approve again further measures to advance towards the creation of an independent state, which will promptly be challenged legally by Madrid. Therefore, the clash between Madrid and the Catalan authorities is likely to intensify in the coming months," he said.

Italy’s risky referendum

Italian PM Matteo Renzi
Franco Origlia/Getty Images

Italy's banking system seems to have avoided going into meltdown this summer despite fears over the estimated 360 billion euros worth of non-performing loans on its banks' books. But it's the country's political system that is now at risk with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi facing a referendum on reforms in October which, if he loses, could see him resign. This would leave the country in limbo in terms of leadership and economic reforms which Eurasia Group said had "lost momentum" ahead of the referendum.

"For now, we continue to believe the referendum will pass (with 60 percent confidence). But this means there's a non-negligible risk it will not. In this case, the government would collapse, despite Renzi's recent protestations to the contrary, paving the way for an ineffectual caretaker government," Eurasia Group said.

Merkel’s dilemma

German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Czech Republic.
Matej Divizna/Getty Images

As Eurasia Group said in its note Thursday, "political mess in Athens, Lisbon, Madrid and Rome carry implications for Berlin and Frankfurt." German Chancellor Angela Merkel – seen widely as the euro zone's strongest leader -- can ill-afford problems in the rest of the single currency area given her own increasingly fragile grip on power.

Her handling of the region's refugee crisis (in sum, allowing over 1 million migrants into Germany in 2015 alone) has prompted a drop in her approval ratings, criticism from rivals both within Germany and the wider EU. Her own party, the Christian Democratic Union, has been pummeled in local and state elections, leading to questions over whether Merkel can stand for election again in 2017.

Austria’s rising far right

An election campaign poster of the presidential candidate Norbert Hofer from the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) is pictured on August 31, 2016 in Vienna.
JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images

Like most of Europe, far-right parties (like the National Front in France or Pegida in Germany) have been gaining a foothold in the political scene, worrying the mainstream political establishment. Austria is no exception, Eurasia Group noted, stating that a presidential election on October 2 looked certain to "hand power to the EU's first far-right head of state - (Norbert Hofer)."

"While his powers as president would be limited, Hofer will use every opportunity to facilitate a victory for his party in 2018 or before, if any crisis (refugees, euro zone) gives him an excuse to dismiss the government. As Austria's main representative abroad, Hofer will seek to strengthen ties with central eastern European governments which are most critical of Brussels and Berlin. That would represent a particular challenge for Merkel," the group noted.

Turkey troubles

Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wave Turkish flags as they gather in Istanbul's central Taksim Square on July 19, 2016, in Istanbul, Turkey.
Kursat Bayhan | Getty Images

Europe's migrant crisis has exposed challenges in the region not only in terms of its ability to respond to a humanitarian crisis but also its political cohesion and ambitions. Overwhelmed by the influx of desperate migrants, the EU struck a deal with Turkey that would see it preventing migrants from reaching the continent, in return for money, visa liberalization for Turkish citizens visiting the EU and fast-tracked EU membership.

That deal was struck before Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan led a crackdown on the opposition following a failed coup attempt, putting him at odds with EU values on freedom of speech and the rule of law, leading the EU to delay its part of the deal (in terms of visa liberalization). Eurasia Group noted that "in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt in Turkey, risks to the EU-Turkey refugee deal have increased" and although it thought the deal would stick the analysis firm said this would depend on Erdogan's reaction to the delayed visa liberalization.

Hungary’s push against EU

Hungarian Prime Minister and Chairman of the Fidesz-Hungarian Civic Alliance, Viktor Orban.
Arpad Kurucz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The EU's deal with Turkey has not been enough to assuage the concerns of certain eastern European nations over migration to the EU. Hungary and its ruling, right-wing Fidesz government has been one of the more vociferous opponents of the EU's migrant policy response and it is holding a referendum on October 2 on whether it should reject the EU's migrant quota system (which would see the country have to accept a certain quota of migrants).

"Although the urgency of the refugee crisis has subsided, the government' hard and effective campaign will boost turnout and likely result in a rejection of the (European) Commission's scheme … This result will strengthen Fidesz domestically and cause more friction across Europe, since Hungary will now be pushed to take an even more vocal stance against the commission's current plans," Eurasia Group's team noted.

Hollande’s failure

French President Francois Hollande speaks to journalists at the Prefectoral Palace the day after the Bastille Day truck attack, in Nice, France, July 15, 2016.
Eric Gaillard | Reuters

Terrorism has yet to be mentioned in the long list of risks facing Europe but France has had more than its fair share of terrorism-related events in the last year. After the Paris massacres last spring (on the Charlie Hebdo offices) and last November to the recent Bastille Day attack in Nice, the country has been forced to do some soul-searching over its policies towards migrants, integration and assimilation – and the government's response to the terrorism threat.

French President Francois Hollande's approval ratings are at a low ebb (around 18 percent as of the last Ipsos Mori poll for Le Point magazine in mid-August) and he has yet to say whether he will run for the presidency in elections in 2017. The dwindling of Hollande's authority – and resignation of Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron - has left the future of economic reforms in doubt.

Resurgent Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Sasha Mordovets | Getty Images

Since Russia's annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and the alleged support for a pro-Russian uprising in Ukraine, the country has been on a collision course with its European neighbors with reciprocal sanctions now in place between the two bodies.

Despite its economic isolation, however, Russia has seen something of a resurgence on the global stage recently, particularly as a key part of the Western alliance fighting Islamic State in Syria – leaving the EU out in the cold, according to Marc Pierini from think tank Carnegie Europe.

"The Syrian war has left the EU in a second-tier position among international actors," Pierini said in a note last month.

"The EU's internal divisions have given the union little influence on the course of events in Syria. Yet the brunt of the war's humanitarian, economic, and security consequences falls on EU countries. The EU's future role in Syria will be a litmus test of a genuine common foreign and security policy."

Lastly then, Brexit

Justin Tallis | AFP | Getty Images

Against such a minefield of potential problems in Europe, suddenly Britain's decision to leave the folds of the EU doesn't look too bad – not least of all because nothing has actually been done since the vote. Britain has yet to trigger the now-legendary "Article 50" of the Lisbon Treaty which would set in motion the formal process of leaving the EU, and could wait until mid-2017 to do so.

Europe's institutions and leaders have expressed their exasperation with the U.K. for its delay in starting the exit process but given the other issues on its plate, Brexit could be the least of its worries – especially if leaders like Germany's Merkel, France's Hollande and Italy's Renzi are soon faces of the past. As Eurasia Group concluded its note: "While Brexit is indeed serious, little or no substantive political risk is likely from this through year-end. But Brexit's noise seriously masks meaningful political and market risks in Portugal, Italy, Greece, Austria, Hungary and Turkey."