The easiest and probably the safest prediction for 2022 is that it’ll be rather unpredictable, and probably will not have much semblance to what was predicted by the authors of the 2017 analysis, Europe in 2022: Alternative Futures.
The EU (and the world) faces internal and external issues that, combined, will make 2022 a year probably even more challenging than the previous one. That is true even if all of those challenges have been around for a while, yet, for various reasons the EU failed to come up with an adequate answer to them.
Covid-19 (-20, -21, -22)
Cases of Covid-19 are rising in an alarming rate all over the world, with the US averaging 400,000 new cases a day. The omicron variant is likely to be followed by the rest of the Greek Alphabet, forcing the world to dynamically adapt to the varying levels of threat posed by the virus. The main reason behind this is the fact that the world is not vaccinated fast enough: while in Europe, the “competition” is about who reaches 100 percent faster, there are many low-income countries, where less than 8 percent of the population received at least one dose.
That in itself adds a level of uncertainty to every kind of planning process, with possible dire consequences for economic recovery. (As tacitly acknowledged by the European Commission, that has just adjusted its inflation forecast for 2022 upward, from under 2 percent to 2,2 percent.)
Previous planning, including about the next steps to be done with the extraordinary monetary and fiscal measures deployed to counter the effects of the pandemic; was based on the presumption of returning to normalcy in 2022. That is likely not going to happen.
Escalating tensions regarding Ukraine – migration/border security issues with Belarus
The relations between the US and Russia are increasingly confrontational in which the EU will be likely forced to take sides during 2022. The already problematic migration and border security issues with Belarus are further escalated by the tensions regarding energy policy.
With the two countries set to be engaged in “strategic stability talks” in January, Washington promised to “respond decisively”, would Russia further threaten Ukraine’s sovereignty; also threatening Moscow with imposing strong economic penalties and other punitive actions, should Russia fail to de-escalate the conflict.
The latest developments on the Old Continent also point towards some possible EU action in the future, like the proposed rapid deployment units. Still, given the colliding domestic interests of the different member states, it is likely that reality will not exactly look like the plans on paper.
One indicator (not the most important one, of course) to that is President Macron’s new pet project, the Strategic Compass, an operational guide to decision making on security and defense issues, that should be accepted in May, but was already criticized by many as not being enough anti-Russian.
With Emmanuel Macron facing elections at home (though polls put him ahead and he also benefits from the divisions appearing on the right wing), he needs successes. Having the possibility of being the new strongman of Europe after the departure of Angela Merkel, he is likely to push for even more strategic autonomy.
The EU spent the last few years trying to balance between Washington and Beijing, prioritizing its own economic interests above great power politics, but given the increasingly antagonistic relations between the two powers (and the fact that the Green Party, a staunch supporter of transatlantic cooperation, took over the foreign ministry in Berlin), it is likely to change in 2022.
While some hope that a slowing economy, a debt crisis (think Evergrande), the global pressure to go green and the US’s attempts to “contain” the “Dragon” might put just enough pressure on President Xi Jingpin to back down from expanding the country’s global influence, China has shown many times that it is a great survivor.
The EU came up with counter offers to the Chinese “great belt” efforts, offering its own set of lucrative deals and infrastructure projects, but it is yet to be seen, how enthusiastic the answer will be from the intended recipients, especially when faced with Chinese pressure (think Pakistan’s non-participation in the Summit for Democracy).
A China Summit is also planned for the year and it has the possibility to show, how the EU (and Germany) will manage to balance business interests, political values and human rights.
Brexit is still far from over, with ongoing disputes in a wide range of topics, starting from fisheries and ending with the Northern Ireland trade problem; not to mention the global disruptions and challenges in supply chains that affected the UK probably more badly than the rest of Europe. As UK citizens were basically banned from Germany after the surge in omicron-cases, another negative-side effect of Brexit was showed.
With a new chief negotiator in charge and with an embattled Johnson-government at the helm of the country there are high hopes for pragmatic solutions
The new green taxonomy, published last minute includes “nuclear” as a form of green energy, obviously taking French demands into account. Alienating, on the other hand, the Green leadership of two German ministries; Environment Minister Steffi Lemke and Economy and Climate Protection Minister Robert Habeck, who both criticized the initiative, claiming that it “watered down the good label for sustainability”. Besides showing some possible rifts within the traffic light coalition itself; the German step also has the possibility of causing some trouble in the Paris-Berlin relations.
Nuclear energy is not only a French-German issue, Poland and many other member states also look at nuclear energy as a viable alternative to carbon, while Austria and Luxemburg strongly oppose it.
As achieving the objectives outlined in the Green Deal is a top priority for the Commission (as defined in its Work Program), green issues (as defined by the Fit for 55 package) will dominate other sectors, like agriculture or transport policy, as well, with a wide variety of possible alliances and support groups emerging as differing domestic interests collide.
Rule of law rules
While Covid-19 and economic woes were dominating the news, the rule of law issue didn’t get that much attention as previously, but it doesn’t mean that the problem solved itself. In fact, by withholding recovery funds from the countries involved, it just got more serious.
With the Green Party at the helm of the foreign ministry, the new German government made it to top priority to tackle the issue, promising to be less forgiving when it comes to steps threatening to undermine the independence of the judiciary, or any other issue falling under the category of “rule of law”.
Though some expect both Warsaw and Budapest to show some readiness to back down, at least a little and accept some sort of pragmatic solutions, for various reasons (with Poland needing the EU against Russia and with Hungary’s general elections approaching); the other side should also move a little and accept other points of view, especially if they truly want to proceed towards a more unified Europe. (As defined in the coalition program of the German government.)
Add to the above the other challenges at hand, like negotiations on the fiscal rules, tax policies and minimal wages (though some surprise development might come along with the slight, but visible change in the attitudes of the Frugal Four, shown by the appointment of Sigrid Kaag as finance minister in the Netherlands); the issue of digital policies or the question of further EU enlargement, and 2022 is likely to turn out to be yet another year full of tension, arguments and drama.