It has been a turbulent year all over the world, Europe included. The Covid-19 pandemic dominated everything, costing lives, decimating growth, accumulating debts, stifling investment and increasing unemployment.
Yet, there could be a lot to celebrate in Europe in 2021 after this particularly hard year.
First, there is a Covid-19 vaccine on its way to Europe. Second, the European Union countries are going to benefit from a Covid-19 recovery budget that is bigger than the Marshall Plan put in place by the US after World War II. Third, the UK’s leaving the EU in the so-called Brexit is almost sorted.
Moreover, Europe’s leaders will have a friend in the White House in the shape of new US President Joe Biden after four tumultuous years under former president Donald Trump. Europe’s mantra over the last few years has been to achieve “strategic autonomy”. But a close ally in the White House is always welcome news, especially in a changing world.
Biden is the right man at the right moment for Europe. He was elected two months before the end of the Brexit transition period, and though it is difficult to evaluate Biden’s impact on the negotiations in their final stages, since he was elected he has repeatedly warned against Britain’s violation of the Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of bloody confrontation in Northern Ireland.
When Britain announced in December an agreement with the EU ending the possibility of customs checkpoints on the island of Ireland and specifying that these arrangements would be in the Irish Sea, many said this was a result of Biden’s influence.
The nuclear deal with Iran has also been affected by Biden’s election. A second term for Trump would have killed it, but with Biden in the White House on 20 January, all the talk in Europe is about when, not if, the Biden administration will re-join a nuclear deal that is considered a cornerstone of the EU’s nuclear non-proliferation policies.
As for the Paris Climate Accord, Biden has said his administration will re-join the accord in the first 100 days of his presidency.
Europe is thus looking forward to 2021 with an optimism it has lacked over the last four years. While there are many issues that need addressing such as trade relations with the US, Russia’s security challenge, China’s trade practices and Turkey’s threat to European interests in the Eastern Mediterranean, Libya and Syria, the return of cooperation between the US and Europe on all these issues means a return to the effectiveness of international organisations such as the United Nations, NATO and the World Trade Organisation.
“I cannot stress enough the importance of having a new American administration for the EU’s interests and ambitions. A second term of Trump would have been very bad news for Europe,” one European official told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“Now, with Biden in the White House from 20 January, we can look forward to 2021 with optimism. After the ordeal of Brexit and Trump, the EU wants to be ambitious in its aims. It wants to be a bigger and a better player on the international stage. The EU is not only an economic-political project, but also a project for peace, cooperation and liberal values,” he said.
The EU Commission has adopted a 2021 work programme “designed to make Europe healthier, fairer and more prosperous, while accelerating its long-term transformation into a greener economy, fit for the digital age,” the EU said.
EU Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen said that “our utmost priority will continue being to save lives and livelihoods threatened by the coronavirus pandemic. We have already achieved a lot. But Europe is not out of the woods yet, and the second wave is hitting hard across Europe. The European Commission will continue its efforts to secure a future vaccine for Europeans and to help our economies recover through the green and digital transition.”
The programme includes a European green deal making Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. It will aim to reduce European greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 per cent by 2030 and will cover areas from renewables to energy efficiency, the energy performance of buildings, land use, energy taxes and emissions trading.
It will aim to make Europe fit for the digital age through a roadmap of 2030 digital targets related to connectivity, skills and public services. The focus will be on the right to privacy and connectivity, freedom of speech, the free flow of data and cyber-security.
It will also aim to create an economy that works for people by implementing the European Pillar of Social Rights, making sure that no one is left behind in Europe’s recovery. And it will aim to reinforce Europe’s role in the world, including by leading the global response to securing a safe and accessible Covid-19 vaccine for all. The EU’s contribution to a rule-based multilateralism will be strengthened, and there will be a renewed partnership with the EU’s neighbourhood countries.
Finally, the EU Commission will be promoting the European way of life, notably by strengthening the role of existing health agencies and establishing a new agency for biomedical research and development. A new strategy for the future of the Schengen area will be tabled. A new pact on migration and asylum will be followed up with a number of measures on legal migration, including a “talents and skills” package.
Other elements include an action plan against migrant smuggling and a sustainable voluntary return and reintegration strategy. The commission is also aiming to continue to strengthen the European Security Union, addressing terrorism, organised crime and hybrid threats.
In the first few months of 2021, the most important thing to look out for is how the EU countries will deal with economic recovery programmes after Covid-19. One option is to increase public spending to drive domestic investment, boost growth and encourage consumption. The other is to cut public spending to try to reduce budget deficits. The choice will determine the future of populism in Europe because austerity measures and spending cuts could lead to a second wave of populism.
Next year will also see the full effect of Brexit on the relationship between the UK and the EU and their economic, political and security ties.
At the beginning of the year, the EU will start distributing a total of €750 billion in grants and loans from its Covid-19 recovery plan, with some countries, such as Italy, receiving an estimated €209 billion.
KEY ELECTIONS: Europe in 2021 will witness several elections that will determine the public mood.
The first are the Dutch general elections on 17 March, important because the Netherlands has always been a barometer of the populist-nationalist right in Europe. The centre-right and centre-left parties are recovering in Holland, and the general elections will be one of the indicators of the mood towards extreme-right populist-nationalist parties such as the For Freedom Party led by Dutch politician Geert Wilders.
On 6 May, there will be local elections in Britain, the first after Brexit. Commentators will be interested to see how the British public judges the ruling Conservative Party in its management of the economy, Covid-19 and Brexit. If British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffers a major defeat, that will be an important sign. But equally important will be who benefits from it, whether the Labour Party or the new Reform Britain Party led by former Brexiteer Nigel Farage.
Also on 6 May, there will be elections to the Scottish Assembly. The Scottish Nationalist Party would like a popular mandate to hold a second referendum on the secession of Scotland from the United Kingdom. If it wins the majority of the seats in the Scottish Assembly, it will obtain the mandate it wants, possibly ushering in the beginning of the breakup of the UK.
On 24 October, there will be federal and regional elections in Germany. Over recent years, the far-right Alternative for Germany Party has managed big electoral wins, prompting German Chancellor Angela Merkel to announce her departure from the political scene by 2022. The mainstream parties in Germany will need to do well in both sets of elections, if they are to halt the rise of the nationalist and populist far-right in Germany.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly