Year in review: Ten defining moments for Europe in 2023

Brussels: As the year draws to a close, Euronews breaks down ten pivotal moments that shaped Europe in 2023.

  1. One year of war in Ukraine

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy marked one year since the outbreak of Russia’s war in Ukraine with a whirlwind tour of London, Paris and Brussels. He called on allies to step up their support for the war-torn country, and in Brussels pitched for Ukraine’s speedy accession to the European Union.

“This is our Europe. These are our rules. This is our way of life. And for Ukraine, it’s a way home,” Zelenskyy told a full house of the European Parliament in Brussels.

  1. Finland joins NATO

Finland became NATO’s 31st member on April 4, doubling the alliance’s border with Russia.

The invasion of Ukraine prompted Finland and Sweden to abandon their decades-long policy of military non-alignment, with both countries applying for NATO membership in May 2022.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stalled Sweden’s accession over concerns the country was harbouring Kurdish militants. He dropped his veto in July and the Turkish parliament gave its consent in December, paving the way for Sweden’s accession in early 2024.

Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto with the US Secretary of State and NATO Secretary General after signing the NATO ratification documents

  1. The Adriana migrant boat disaster

An overloaded fishing boat carrying up to 750 migrants capsized off the coast of Pylos, Greece on 14 June, in one of the deadliest shipwrecks in the Mediterranean.

A search and rescue operation by Greece’s Hellenic Coast Guard (HCG) and the military rescued 104 men and recovered 82 bodies. Still, officials later confirmed over 500 were presumed to have lost their lives.

Conflicting testimonies raised questions as to whether an HCG rescue boat had caused the boat to sway and capsize. The EU’s border agency Frontex also faced mounting scrutiny over its part in the response operation.

  1. EU’s Nature Restoration Law survives knife-edge vote

A new bill aiming to rehabilitate at least 20% of EU land and seas by 2030 survived a knife-edge vote in the European Parliament in July.

Right-wing parties, particularly the European People’s Party (EPP), had led a bitter campaign in a bid to entirely reject the legislation, citing a threat to the livelihood of farmers and fishers. The vote was seen as a victory for progressives, environmentalists and conservationists, who held out against fierce backlash in a bid to protect Europe’s biodiversity.

The law passed its next hurdle in November when lawmakers struck an agreement with the bloc’s member states.

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg and other activists attend a demonstration ahead of the vote on the Nature Restoration Law, July 11

  1. Greece fights largest wildfire on record in EU

The largest wildfire ever recorded in the EU raged in north-eastern Greece in August, as the EU mobilised half of its aerial firefighting fleet to contain the blaze.

The most recent data from the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) suggests that over 463,000 hectares of land burned across the EU’s 27 member states this year alone, with Spain’s canary islands, the Greek islands of Rhodes and Corfu, Portugal’s southern Algarve region and the Italian island of Sicily all experiencing intense summer blazes.

People react as they try to extinguish a wildfire in Avantas village, near Alexandroupolis town, in the northeastern Evros region, Greece, on August 21

  1. War erupts between Israel and Hamas

Hamas militants’ deadly rampage in Israel on October 7 left more than 1,100 dead and around 250 hostages. It marked the beginning of a devastating war that has since raged relentlessly, with just one six-day respite in fighting in late November. More than 20,000 Palestinians are estimated to have lost their lives in the conflict.

The humanitarian crisis engulfing the Gaza Strip prompted mixed reactions from Europe. While some nations called for a humanitarian ceasefire from the outset, others resisted, citing Israel’s right to self-defence and the need to eradicate Hamas through military means.

By early December, a majority of the EU’s member states backed a United Nations resolution calling for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire.”

Palestinians evacuate two wounded boys following Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City, October 25

  1. Pro-EU opposition takes power in Poland

Opposition parties secured enough votes to oust the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) in Poland’s October election, paving the way for former European Council president Donald Tusk to become the new prime minister.

Although PiS was the largest party at 35% of the vote, Tusk was able to form a coalition government after his Civic Coalition party struck an agreement with two other pro-EU parties, the Third Way Party and the New Left.

Tusk has since taken the first steps to change policies related to the rule of law, launching the process to join the European public prosecutor’s office and sacking the bosses of state TV and radio, which had been under the tight grip of his populist predecessors.

Donald Tusk shows a heart with his hands after being elected as Poland’s Prime Minister, December 11

  1. Amnesty deal sparks protests in Spain

July’s inconclusive general election left no clear road to government for the right- or left-wing coalitions in Spain. But Pedro Sánchez’s socialists struck a deal with Catalan separatists to form a government in exchange for a controversial amnesty for those who participated in the failed attempt at secession from Spain in 2017.

The deal sparked weeks of violent protests in Spain’s capital Madrid, and invited scrutiny by officials in Brussels, amid concerns about potential rule of law breaches.

Demonstrators block the street during a protest against the amnesty at the headquarters of Socialist party in Madrid, Spain, November 16

  1. Geert Wilders wins Dutch election

The Dutch snap election delivered a shock result in November, as the Eurosceptic, anti-Islam Party for Freedom (PVV) snatched victory after a last-minute surge in the polls.

PVV leader Geert Wilders has since vowed to tame his hardline policies, after previously calling for a ban on mosques and Islamic headscarves, and a referendum on the Netherlands’ exit from the EU.

But with centre-right parties hesitant to join forces with Wilders, he could fail to piece together a 76-seat majority in the ongoing coalition talks.

  1. Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia inch closer to EU membership

In a historic move, EU nations approved opening formal talks on Ukraine and Moldova’s EU membership in December, following the European Commission’s recommendation.

Viktor Orbán abstained from the vote in a choreographed political move, as he left the room momentarily to allow the remaining 26 leaders to take a unanimous decision. Georgia was also made an official candidate for EU accession.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has injected a new sense of urgency into the EU’s enlargement, as the bloc looks to integrate its eastern flank, including war-torn Ukraine.

Brussels had also hoped to approve a €50-billion long-term fund for Ukraine in a December summit but faced resistance from Orbán.

The decision has been postponed to February when leaders could be forced to piece together a makeshift fund outside the core EU budget if Orbán continues to dig in his heels.