What to Watch in 2017: GMF Experts Name the Issues That Will Define the Year
The start of a new year is usually a time for optimism. However, this January seems to bring little hope of a better year to come. Europe’s unresolved crises have turned to chronic debility, and none of our experts foresee fresh positive impulses.
Europe will not be able to solve any of its other crises until the underlying instability surrounding the euro crisis is properly fixed. Italy and Greece will start the new year fiscally unsound and with new warnings of failing banks, while increasing numbers of refugees and migrants are landing on their shores. Germany, the indispensable country for a fix to the euro crisis, faces an election year that will leave it unable to render further aid until September and likely weakened thereafter. Plus there is still Brexit.
Across the Atlantic, the other indispensable nation looks like it may face a serious crisis of governance. The erosion of long-standing political norms and extreme partisanship of the past few years have left the system weakened. Serious conflicts, including over constitutional principles, are already brewing — and the lack of such a clash may presage even worse.
There are a number of things that could go dramatically wrong in the year ahead, and few that look like they might go right (Cyprus?). Perhaps our dismal forecast will fail to anticipate some genuine positive surprises 2017 will bring.
-Rachel Tausendfreund, Editorial Director
Brussels Becomes a Talking Shop in a Bubble
The non-story of 2017 might be the European Union's drift towards irrelevance amid the indifference of most. Scapegoated as the cause of the rise of populism and anti-globalism, European states have long stopped supporting the project of integration on the continent. Hollowed out of their powers and legitimacy, EU institutions may not disintegrate but simply become a talking shop, and EU member states will cooperate only when seen as meeting national prerogatives.
To many this would not be a loss. Providing NATO continues to exist, Europe will be safe. The EU failed as an elite project and will never move the hearts and minds of Europeans. Leaving aside that NATO's future is uncertain, this view underestimates the role the EU has played in mitigating political conflict in Europe. Through its uninspiring searches for compromise and middle ground, policies which compensated between multiple preferences with minimum common denominators which enthused no one but satisfied more than dissatisfied. This was boring and predictable, of course, and in many areas would need overhauling. But it played a big part in the most successful international experiment in peace and democracy.
-Rosa Balfour, Acting Director, Europe Program
Divisive Elections Will Leave Germany Weaker
Among a raft of elections in Europe in 2017, those in Germany will be the most turbulent and consequential ones. As a result of the eurozone crisis and, especially, the refugee challenge, the political landscape is more polarized than ever in postwar Germany. The far-right Alternative for Germany has steadily gained traction with its nationalist, anti-immigrant, and Eurosceptic agenda, adding to and often combining with the anti-market and anti-Western positions that have long been advocated by the far left. In combination, these fringes are putting an unprecedented pressure on Germany’s political middle, which after four years of a Christian and Social Democrat government displays increasing fissures.
These dynamics will be fanned by Russian disinformation, support for fringe politics, and efforts to discredit mainstream politics. Moscow’s objective is to weaken Berlin’s position, as the key advocate of sanctions against Russia and as primary anchor of European unity. As a result of these domestic dynamics and foreign meddling which may be reinforced by more terrorist attacks, Germany will see a highly divisive campaign and, eventually, a new government that is more contested and unstable than previous ones. This will undermine much-praised German stability and impair the country’s influence in Europe and the world.
-Joerg Forbrig, Director, Fund for Belarus Democracy and Senior Transatlantic Fellow
Agency-Level Transatlantic Cooperation May Withstand Big Transatlantic Shifts
The Obama administration executed an impressive amount of transatlantic cooperative agreements between federal agencies and their European counterparts on issues ranging from vocational training (with Germany, Switzerland, Austria) to sustainable urban development (with European Union, Germany). Some of these federal-to-federal efforts at knowledge exchange, which are often unfunded by the U.S. government and led by non-politically appointed staff, have been operational for several years and are unlikely to disappear in a Trump administration. It will be interesting to watch if agency staffers are able to keep up momentum with their counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic or to see how priorities for international engagement shift in a Trump administration. If Trump follows through on his infrastructure spending plans, there is renewed opportunity for transatlantic dialogue with European counties, such as Germany, given the similarities in need and potential for economic stimulus in both countries.
-Geraldine Gardner, Director, Urban and Regional Policy
In Every Crisis Lies Opportunity — Women in 2017
The thing to watch in 2017 is what happens to women and the pursuit toward gender equality and diversity. The significance of Mr. Trump’s victory went beyond the defeat of Hillary Clinton. It put an end to the post-Cold War narrative of an all-embracing liberal democracy and introduced questions about the real advances of the women in pursuit of equality and power.
Many workings toward the professional advancement of women had to realize that they were out of touch with the reality of working class women. Women in the Western world have more choices than ever before, despite the remaining challenges. But they do not necessarily prioritize feminism and sisterhood.
It will be interesting to watch feminists persevere in light of macho and populist leaderships that seem to be the only answer to the chaotic world forces. There will be analysis, calm and judicious voices and new approaches as well as hype, spin, and personal battles regarding women’s role and place in society. I expect a new recognition of diversity within women’s advocacy groups and efforts to connect across communities to advance women and gender parity.
-Corinna Horst, Deputy Director, Brussels Office
China and Russia Will Test U.S. Power
The election of Donald Trump as president has created doubt about the U.S. role in the world, in particular about its commitments to allies. In this new climate of radical uncertainty, other powers around the world are likely to test the new U.S. president. Even while Obama was president, against the background of a widespread perception of American decline and retrenchment, powers such as China, Iran, and Russia were “probing the peripheries” of American power. Now that there is even greater uncertainty about U.S. commitments, they are likely to go further. The seizure by China of a U.S. underwater drone in the South China Sea on December 15 can be seen as a first test of the new U.S. president. In 2017, the administration is likely to face more potentially dangerous tests of this kind. Trump’s foreign policy may to a large extent be determined by how he responds to them.
-Hans Kundnani, Senior Transatlantic Fellow
Democracy in Europe Will Face Challenges From Xenophobic Nationalists and Cyber-Attacks
After the CIA’s warning about Russian involvement in cyber-attacks on the Democratic National Committee, and consequent sanctions imposed during the last weeks of the Obama administration, hackers based in Russia are expected to target the 2017 elections in France and Germany.
Aided by anti-liberal cyber forces, but also the wave of economic discontent and identity politics, a series of elections in Europe will bring to power, or closer to power, political leaders riding the wave of right-wing and hard left nationalism. Some mainstream leaders may remain in office but will be increasingly beholden to the extremes. This takes the politics of intolerance from the periphery to the core of Europe, with parallel developments, mutatis mutandis, in the United States. How can the liberal international order, that has enabled the world to weather previous storms, adapt so as to survive?
-Michael Leigh, Senior Fellow
Peril and Promise in the Mediterranean
Migration pressure will shift from the eastern to the central Mediterranean. In 2016, some 400,000 people made their way to Europe by sea, with almost 5,000 reported deaths, the vast majority in the central Mediterranean. This flow is only partly driven by conflict and political turmoil. It is overwhelmingly the product of economic disparity, and it will not end any time soon. It is set to overtake the Aegean crisis as a political issue, and will put Italy and Malta — with its first semester 2017 presidency of the EU — in the spotlight.
The second shock would be a positive one. The outlook for a Cyprus settlement has had its ups and downs over the past year. But there is a reasonable chance for a settlement in 2017, if Turkey and Russia do not scupper the prospects, and if Europe and the United States remain engaged. Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders are keen to make it work.
-Ian Lesser, Vice President, The German Marshall Fund of the United States
France: Navel-Gazing Has Just Begun
The presidential election in France this spring is billed as the next big challenge to the liberal order. Aside from the simplistic narrative, eager attention will have to be paid to how a potential François Fillon victory reconfigures French thinking and role within Europe. The conservative candidate openly called for a “Europe of Nations” which France would lead, already putting him in clear opposition with the mainstream of European integration.
The real challenge for France will be to deal with domestic instability. In June 2017, legislative elections will likely give the National Front (FN) a much smaller amount of MPs than the popular vote would command. Therefore, Fillon’s first real challenge may well be to have to stave off criticism about the inadequate representation of the electorate, one that will carry for the five years of his term, and will be amplified by the FN in case of a lack of success in implementing his vision for a “Europe of Nations.” In parallel, Fillon’s planned economic reforms could well cause a winter of discontent in French streets.
Europe will not be the priority of France’s next president. A France unwilling to weigh in fully in European decision-making will be a determining factor in the EU’s balance of power.
-Martin Michelot, Non-Resident Fellow
Warmer U.S.-Russia Ties Under Trump Could Stabilize Asia at Europe’s Expense
In 1972, President Richard Nixon formed an entente with what had previously been a hostile China in order to balance the rising power and aggressiveness of the Soviet Union. In 2017, might President Donald Trump form an entente with what had previously been a hostile Russia in order to balance the rising power and aggressiveness of China?
A declining Russia, rich in natural resources and with vast tracts of empty territory, has much to worry about in the form of a rising, populous China with a desperate hunger for natural resources. President Vladimir Putin appears so obsessed with recreating the Russian empire in eastern Europe that he has taken his eye off the longer-term strategic challenge posed by Chinese dominion over the eastern end of Eurasia.
Trump could make a Kissingerian attempt to split Russia from China to improve America’s strategic leverage in East Asia. The great risk is that this could come at the expense of NATO unity and deterrence, at a time when the Russian military is postured for rapid strikes against NATO members Poland and Estonia. America’s supreme interest lies in shoring up the European security order, not in another Russian “reset.”
-Daniel Twining, Director and Senior Fellow, Asia Program
Deter, Disengage, and Externalize: The Refugee Situation in 2017
The migration crisis has dominated headlines for the past few years, , and will continue to be a top story in 2017. Migration and refugee policy is a big, often patchy construction site, at all levels, from local to the UN. On January 1, UN Secretary General and former UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres will have two years to develop two new policy compacts, one on migration and one on refugees. Meanwhile, signals of disengagement abound.
Kenya continues to warn that it will close the world’s largest refugee camp, home to about 350,000 refugees, due to security concerns. North Americans, too, will not be offering much haven for refugees in 2017. Both the United States and Canada are expected to take in fewer refugees. Canada has announced a reduction of their refugee quota from 55,800 to 40,000, and a Trump administration will likely announce a reduction as well.
Europe will continue to externalize migration and asylum policy and try to deter incoming migration, trying to cut deals with third countries along its borders or on major migration routes in Africa. Meanwhile, the EU–Turkey deal, which along with the closing of the Balkan route repressed arrivals into Europe, has only been implemented in fragments and is tenuous. With elections in the Netherlands, France, and Germany all before September next year, the security and migration debate will be prominent and heated, providing fertile ground for populists.
-Astrid Ziebarth, Migration Fellow
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.