London (CNN) – It would be hard for you to find someone in Europe who is not happy to see the end of 2020. Covid-19, Brexit and this year’s international political carnage have hit the continent and exacerbated the tensions that have plagued the European Union for years.
But those problems won’t go away in 2021.
Without a pandemic, without tense talks with the United Kingdom or an American president as anti-European Union as Donald Trump, Brussels could finally find a space to address the problems that have long undermined the bloc, although it will not be easy.
To some extent, the crises of 2020 have masked a debilitating lack of unity across the EU. Despite Brussels’ lofty ambitions for further integration and becoming a global force in its own right, it faces a setback on issues ranging from internal adherence to the rule of law to a coordinated strategy to deal with China. The rule of law is probably the most immediate problem to solve.
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After months of painful negotiations, the bloc’s member states agreed to both a long-term budget and a covid recovery package that totaled nearly US $ 2 trillion. The nations that have been hardest hit by the pandemic in 2020 desperately need those funds.
However, two European member states spent a good part of 2020 objecting to the release of those funds: Hungary and Poland.
The governments of Viktor Orban and Mateusz Morawiecki opposed the funds being linked to compliance with the rule of law, which is not surprising as both are being investigated for infractions at the EU level. The charges leveled against both countries range from repressing critics of the government to undermining the independence of the judiciary.
The problem in Europe with Hungary and Poland in 2020
During the coronavirus crisis, concerns have also been raised about the use of emergency measures in numerous EU nations, including Hungary and Poland, that restrict the fundamental rights of citizens.
It had long been speculated that Brussels would attempt to link the EU budget to the rule of law as a way to control rogue states.
Unfortunately, trying to do so in 2020 during a pandemic and subsequent recession has strengthened the impact of the veto that all member states are entitled to.
In this particular case, intransigence in Budapest and Warsaw eventually led to a compromise in Brussels in which both sides gave ground, which in the grand scheme of things could be interpreted as the EU ruining one of its key principles.
Hungary and Poland could be the most extreme cases. But many other nations have regressed on civil liberties in recent years, “says Jakub Jaraczewski, legal officer at Democracy Reporting International.
“Linking the rule of law directly to EU money is not in itself a bad idea,” he explains. “But if more than one nation is pushing the boundaries by restricting freedoms and undermining judges, you will inevitably find these states backing each other at the EU level, undermining the whole thing.”
One of the debates of the European Union in 2020
Several influential voices in Brussels had previously suggested approving covid recovery funds without Hungary and Poland, moving forward in a group of 25, instead of 27. That approach, however, would have risked opening another tense debate within the EU: precisely how united the Union should be.
Before Brexit, it wasn’t just the UK that had populist movements agitating to leave the EU. In 2020, four years later, Europe’s Eurosceptic parties no longer seek to leave the bloc, now they want to take control.
“It is clear that our electorate is not currently seeking an exit from the EU, so our approach is to generate enough Eurosceptic support to steer it away from the looming disaster of ever closer unity,” says Gunnar Beck, Member of the European Parliament for Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party.
Beck believes that the European eurosceptic movement has the potential to grow, even as normality is restored after Brexit and Joe Biden, an EU supporter, replaces Trump.
“The EU has been in perpetual crisis since 2010 and has not solved any of the problems that these crises have caused, be it the eurozone crisis, the migration crisis or now the covid crisis,” he says.
In 2021 there will be several opportunities to prove that you are right or wrong.
Elections in Europe in 2021
Elections will be held in several member states, including Germany and the Netherlands, two influential nations in Brussels. Both countries have strong Eurosceptic populist movements. AfD is the official opposition in Germany, while in the Netherlands Geert Wilders, a man often described as the Dutch Trump, will defend his position as leader of the largest opposition party.
The fear of Europhiles is not that these extreme parties will come to power, but rather that they scare mainstream politicians to the point that they end up borrowing populist rhetoric. This, as you well know, is exactly what happened in the UK, when Nigel Farage increased the pressure on the Conservatives to the point where they had no choice but to call the Brexit referendum.
This feeling is nothing new in Holland. The incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte caused controversy during the 2017 elections when he wrote an open letter criticizing Islam and immigration. In 2020, Rutte also criticized the EU’s spending plans, demanding that the money not go to waste, an unusual move for a European liberal.
“Rutte’s shift to the right can only be understood when you look at how dangerous the prospect of Wilders taking his votes could be,” says Sarah De Lange from the Department of Political Science at the University of Amsterdam.
Wilders remains a great force. Many have predicted its demise, but it is still here with a large following.
It’s a pattern that has been repeated in many other EU countries, including France, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Austria.
Even in electoral defeat, populists can claim political victories.
“When the populists fall, the dominant parties see an opportunity to collect those votes and control the right wing of their own parties. When they adopt far-right ideas, eventually, that seeps down to the EU level and changes the dynamics in Brussels, ‘says Catherine De Vries, professor of political science at Bocconi University in Milan.
While populists may not expect to win power in Germany or the Netherlands anytime soon, they do see opportunities to work with colleagues in other parts of Europe. “France, the Netherlands, Germany – none of us will be the catalyst for change, we’ve just been brainwashed too much,” says Beck.
“But if you look at our colleagues in central Europe who are free from the pro-Brussels neurosis, you will find countries that are willing to confront the EU in a way that Germany is not.”
After 2020 there is another question for Europe: how will it look on the world stage in 2021?
The degree to which member states are willing to assert themselves plays a crucial role in the other key issue that will concern Brussels in 2021: Where should the EU sit on the international stage?
The Trump presidency forced Europe to think seriously about its relationship with the United States. The fact that someone so eager to be a disruptive force in Europe held the office of the region’s most important ally was obviously troubling.
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The loosely defined term ‘strategic autonomy’ has been used in Brussels for the past two years. In short, it is the EU’s push to become more self-reliant in areas such as security, the economy, supply chains, and climate change, to name a few.
In reality, it is a naked attempt to emerge as one of the three major powers, along with the United States and China.
‘Europeans have no illusions that the United States is going to take a radically different approach to China; Trump has permanently changed the narrative on that, ”says Erik Brattberg, director of the Europe Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
“While they are relieved that the White House is more predictable vis-à-vis China and is willing to coordinate with partners, they will still resist becoming a chip in the Beijing-DC tug of war,” he says.
This will be complicated for European nations when Biden demands that Chinese companies be banned or that Europeans speak out against human rights abuses.
Indeed, the EU’s intention to behave independently of the United States was criticized this week, as the bloc’s leaders signed an investment agreement with China that would be unthinkable for any American president.
“Many European countries, especially Germany, export huge amounts to China and they will not want to cut off that revenue stream,” adds Brattberg.
If a common policy on diplomacy were not tough enough, Brussels’s push for a common security and defense policy is likely to provoke an even greater division.
Europe’s problems in 2020 continue in 2021
It’s no secret that French President Emmanuel Macron would like Europe to take greater control of its own security. It is also no secret that the leaders of Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal and many others are deeply uncomfortable at the prospect of developing enormous military capabilities across the continent.
In short, many EU nations are quite happy that their security is subsidized by NATO and the US, while also having deep economic relations with China and Russia.
And, as Brussels has discovered so far in these discussions, it is very difficult to negotiate with those who have become used to having it all.
2020 was a very difficult year for the EU, there is no other way to put it. It sailed around the cracks of the divide, and will likely do so throughout 2021.
Whether you have the political will or talent to do so without widening those cracks is another question.