What to Watch in 2020
The most important thing to watch in 2020 for everyone in the transatlantic space – and not just there – is of course U.S. presidential politics. The year will start with the impeachment trial of President Trump, only the third in the country’s history. As Trump seems all but certain to survive impeachment, the next spectacle will be the Democratic contest to choose a candidate to face off against Trump in November. All of which means that much of our attention, both in the U.S. and abroad, will be focused on U.S. politics for most of the year.
Yet, as GMF experts point out below, there are plenty of other developments to be watching in 2020. Brexit, which has loomed over Europe for a few years now will finally, it seems, become reality – and bring a share of chaos with it. The EU has a new Commission in place that will come up against not only Brexit, but a slew of persistent challenges and internal divisions while the governments in a number of European capitals look shaky. Meanwhile Russia and China continue to challenge global order and the transatlantic partners in a number of ways. 2020 will a momentous year, perhaps in more ways than we know. Stay tuned!
—Rachel Tausendfreund, Editorial Director
Will Russia Be (Prematurely) Let in from the Cold?
2020 will be the year where some key figures might be tempted to bring Russia back in into the fold. President Macron opened a process of diplomatic rapprochement with Russia, and President Trump has openly wondered whether he should invite Vladimir Putin to the G7 summit that the U.S. will host in June.
These diplomatic openings are not due to the change in Russia's behavior - Russia has not made any positive moves since the illegal annexation of Crimea and the launch of war in Donbass. As the recent summit of the Normandy Format has clearly shown, Vladimir Putin is unwilling to conclude the war in eastern Ukraine, despite President Zelensky’s willingness to compromise.
Fortunately, the proponents of a new opening with Russia are still in minority, both within the EU and in the U.S. administration. But the danger of misunderstanding Russia and dropping the conditions for removing measures against Russia is real. Let's hope that the West does not forget past lessons of resets with Russia in 2020 - otherwise it will be Belarus, Moldova, or another neighbor who will likely have to pay the price.
—Michal Baranowski, Director, Warsaw Office
Regional Election Could Undermine Italy’s Already Weak Coalition Government
2020 will be a year of regional elections with a national impact in Italy. In January, voters in Emilia-Romagna and Calabria will choose their new governors, while voters in Tuscany, Veneto, Liguria, Marche, Campania, and Puglia will do so in late spring.
The elections in Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany will be particularly important. Although these two regions are historically the strongholds of the Democratic Party (PD), a victory of the Northern League political party here could pit more PD membership against the leadership and the governing coalition with the League. Weak performance of the 5 Stars Movement will also put pressure on party leaders to break their tactical alliance with the PD.
And early elections are looking more likely: Matteo Renzi remains tempted to go to snap elections before the reform of the electoral law. The current 3 percent threshold would still allow his new political party, Italia Viva, to maintain a presence in the parliament, while a new system with a higher limit would inevitably condemn him.
—Dario Cristiani, IAI/GMF Fellow
Merkel’s Legacy Year
Chancellor Merkel has often defied predictions about when she will step down, but it is now certain that the German federal election slated for 2021 will not include Merkel as a candidate. While both major parties struggle with leadership questions, watch Merkel use 2020 to shape her legacy. Nobody is taking bets on whether her government will live out its mandate, and jockeying is well underway to succeed her at home and in Europe. But Merkel will keep herself above the fray of domestic party politics and quietly continue to pick up the pieces of President Macron’s disruption. She will have an opportunity to be the voice of Europe one last time when Germany holds the EU Presidency during the second half of 2020. Regardless of her record, her speech during a recent visit to Auschwitz exemplifies Chancellor Merkel’s commitment to principles. Europe is fortunate to have a leader that sees how lessons from history can have a bearing on today.
—Sudha David-Wilp, Deputy Director Berlin Office, Senior Transatlantic Fellow
Belarus May Become the Next Trouble Spot in Eastern Europe
From the East, Minsk feels rising pressure from Moscow to politically integrate beyond the long-standing economic dependency of Belarus on Russia. From the West, support for Belarus’ shaky independence is verbal more than material, as the EU is reluctant to bolster the autocratic government of Alexander Lukashenka. And from within, the country is headed for presidential elections in August 2020, where the existential question of Belarusian statehood will add turbulence. Whatever the outcome of these cross-pressures, their repercussions will be region-wide. NATO may well see Russian pressures on its Eastern flank heighten further. The EU may see with Belarus the last of the Eastern Partnership countries sink into conflict. Ukraine, embattled from the East and South, may feel additional Russian pressures from the North. And Russia may continue the geopolitical roll that it has been on for several years, to the detriment of yet another neighboring country.
—Joerg Forbrig, Senior Fellow and Director for Central and Eastern Europe
As 2020 Dawns, Watch for the United States to Take Up Data Protection in the Surveillance Age
On January 1 California’s Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) goes into effect. The first wide-ranging privacy legislation in the United States, CCPA contains no cap to how much it can fine companies for data protection violations. In 2020 expect to see the first of these fines drop on tech companies.
As a patchwork quilt of state-level laws emerge and lawmakers increasingly view data as an economic and national security asset, 2020 will also see Congress take up federal data protection legislation - though we do not know if they will manage to pass anything significant.
The explosion of information in connected devices and the global mass-marketing of surveillance technologies means that absent of democratic guardrails, data as a tool for authoritarian subversion will grow. Will Chinese and Russian models of information control continue to spread? In 2020 we will get an answer on whether the United States will promote an alternative data and privacy protection model or continue to sit back as surveillance technology props up dictators worldwide.
—Lindsay Gorman, Fellow for Emerging Technologies, Alliance for Securing Democracy
New Leaders, New Vision for Europe
This December for the first time, a woman, Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen, took the helm of the new European Commission, putting together a diverse leadership team. New faces at the helm are not the only source of new energy around the EU. The May EP elections showed the highest voter turnout in decades for the European Parliament elections, and 61 percent of elected MPs were new. At the same time, there are more new types of civic activism in the name of Europe – from Volt, the first pan-European political party that registered in 8 European countries and got a seat in the EP, to the Fridays for Future demonstrations across Europe, to philanthropic initiatives such as Civitates that support European democracy, or The Brussels Binder, which enables more women experts across Europe to be recognized and participate in the policy making and shaping process. With new political leadership and new forms of diverse civil society engagement, 2020 might bring new options for a democratic Europe.
—Corinna Horst, Senior Fellow and Deputy Director, Brussels Office
New Ukraine-Russia Diplomatic Efforts Could Ease Tensions – or Heighten Them
The Minsk diplomat framework for resolving the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and the combined U.S./EU sanctions on Russia, both in place since 2014, have been unsuccessful. However, the last few months of 2019 witnessed the first cautious steps toward diplomatic progress between Ukraine and Russia, marked by several exchanges of prisoners. Volodymyr Zelinsky, Ukraine's new president as of spring 2019, campaigned on a new approach to Minsk diplomacy, and domestic pressures in Russia may make this a propitious moment for Moscow to relax its posture toward Ukraine. There are two things to watch in this situation. A resolution (even a partial one) of the conflict would be a boon to Ukraine and to Europe. But a resolution is by no means guaranteed, and a dramatic diplomatic failure could provide incentives for both parties to escalate militarily, returning to the bloody dynamic of 2014. Except this time transatlantic unity is more precarious, and Washington will be distracted by the impeachment hearings and the 2020 election. Either way, although they have not been in the headlines much, the diplomatic maneuvers between Russia and Ukraine will affect the overall momentum of European security in 2020 – either toward war or toward peace.
—Michael Kimmage, Non-Resident Fellow
States Face Challenges Securing 2020 Elections from Foreign Interference
The Department of Justice, Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Director of National Intelligence, Federal Bureau of Investigations, National Security Agency, and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency have all concluded that our adversaries will try to interfere with the 2020 elections after attempting to do so in 2018 and 2016. Adversaries may try to interfere in the voting process or influence voter perceptions through a variety of means, including directing disinformation operations or conducting cyber-attacks on state and local infrastructure. It cannot be predicted exactly where the interference will occur, so every state should be as prepared as possible for it.
The U.S. government is working very closely with state, local, territorial and private sector partners to identify vulnerabilities, share information and protect the democratic process ahead of 2020. Unfortunately, election officials may not receive all of the federal resources they are seeking to address to their voting system security challenges, so it will be interesting to see what local, state and federal officials can do with limited resources to secure their election infrastructure from multifarious threats ahead of the 2020 elections.
—David Levine, Elections Integrity Fellow, Alliance for Securing Democracy
Eight Years in, France Needs an Exit Strategy from its Sahel Operation
French intervention in January 2013 managed to stop the jihadists offensive and prevent Mali from turning into a terrorist haven. Since 2014, the regional operation Barkhane has aimed to help local forces stabilize the region and fight terrorist threats in their country. But the operation, which costs Paris 700 million euros per year and maintains 4,500 French soldiers in the region, has cost the lives of 44 French soldiers and reached its operational limits. Finding an exit strategy will be the priority for Paris in 2020. Paris will look to transfer more responsibility to local forces and get more military engagement from European allies. Local militaries have been badly hurt by jihadi attacks and are unable to control part of their territories while European allies, though convinced that the operation is useful for European security, remain reluctant to participate in combat operations. Emmanuel Macron put this issue under the spotlight during the NATO London Meeting and will continue to bring it up with European partners in 2020, beginning with a Summit in January.
—Martin Quencez, Fellow and Deputy Director, Paris Office
Malign Finance Will Emerge as a Leading Tool for 2020 Election Interference
Look for new malign financial tools to be deployed by Russia in the months leading up to the 2020 U.S. election, just as cyberattacks and information operations took center stage in 2016.
In 2019, we learned about Russia funneling donations to U.K. Tories, material support to a German lawmaker, financing to extremist websites in Sweden, oil profits intended for Italian politicians, and funding of Rudy Giuliani’s associates. Meanwhile, the U.S. Justice Department determined that the 2016 Trump Tower meeting and a favor of Ukrainian investigations cannot be quantified as “things of value” prosecutable under U.S. campaign finance law.
Expect this trend to worsen in 2020, with the FBI warning that “the Russians are absolutely intent on trying to interfere with our elections.” Russian artillery in “the big show” will feature shell companies, straw donors, in-kind gifts, non-profit conduits, fringe media, and new unseen financial weaponry.
—Josh Rudolph, Fellow for Malign Finance, Alliance for Securing Democracy
The EU Will Show Us the Money
What is the best measure of any government’s real intentions? Their budget, of course. Regardless of what chancellors, presidents, and prime ministers might say, what matters is what they put in the annual budget and what they manage to get approved by their parliaments. The same is true for the EU. Thus, a most important thing to watch for the Union in 2020 will be how EU leaders manage to stitch together the Union’s mid-term budget plan, the so-called Multi-Annual Financial Framework (MFF) for 2021-2027. This seven-year plan broadly defines how much money the EU can spend each year and what the limits of EU spending must be. For the 2014-2020 period, the total sum was 1,082.5 billion euros, an average of about 155 bn per year. This constitutes an overall cost of about one percent of the EU's total GDP. For 2019 the EU budget was approximately 166 billion euros for all EU expenditures across all institutions, programs, and member states. The 2021-2027 MFF process has been delayed because the EU’s member states cannot agree on whether the EU budget should grow. The end of the debate will tell us how much ambition still resides in the EU. Is all of that talk of “decisive moments” and “last chances” followed up on, or is it just cheap talk? The budget might sound like a dull, technical issue, but in reality, it is a key indicator for how much value Europe’s nations still attach to their “togetherness.”
—Jan Techau, Director of the Europe Program and Senior Fellow
U.S. Looks to Sanction Turkey and Escalation is Likely
Strife over the Turkey S-400 missile defense deal with Russia will carry into - and likely escalate - in early 2020. The U.S. Senate is expected to enact S. 2641, a robust sanctions bill toward the Turkey and Turkish officials as a reaction to Turkey’s acquisition of S-400 missiles defense systems and Russia and Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring in North-East Syria. The U.S. bill includes implementation of CAATSA Sanctions and other measures that may seem symbolic but could be consequential in combination. President Erdoğan has already announced that Turkey would consider closing down İncirlik Base and Kürecik Radar Station in response, and the Turkish government would likely not stop there. If this escalation starts, it will bring U.S.-Turkey relations to the edge of the cliff once again, and President Erdoğan may be tempted to capitalize on the new wave of anti-Americanism and patriotic unity that would ensue to call for early elections instead of waiting until 2023.
—Özgür Ünlühisarcıkl, Director, Ankara Office
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.