What to Watch in 2021
As the world watched with growing disbelief, the end of 2020 and the start of 2021 merged into a long transition as Donald Trump’s refusal to concede that he had lost last November’s hotly anticipated U.S. presidential election led to this week’s shocking events in Washington. In the transatlantic space, and more widely, the imminent change from the Trump administration to that of Joe Biden has been awaited as the one crucial development of 2021, and it may prove to be in more ways than many had expected. The ramifications of what has been happening in the United States include the risk of domestic terrorism and the ability of the transatlantic alliance to deal with the new global authoritarian moment.
At the same time, 2021 holds the prospect of major developments in two key members of this alliance. Germany will elect its next government, which will not be headed by Angela Merkel after 16 years, and one key question of the country’s politics will be the fate of the ailing Social Democrats as the main center-left party. It also remains to be seen to what extent the elections will be the target of foreign interference. Meanwhile, Turkey, which has had deteriorating relations with the United States and European countries, may decide that the time has come to mend fences. And in the background, the existential threat of global warming and climate change hangs over everything. While Joe Biden will return the United States to the Paris Agreement, further impetus in tackling the crisis should come from the EU as it prepares to launch its wide-ranging “Fit for 55” legislative package.
A Change in Fortunes for Germany’s Social Democrats?
After bingeing on the U.S. election, Germans can finally focus on electoral politics at home. One thing is certain: Chancellor Angela Merkel will step down after 16 years at the helm of Europe’s largest economy. For three of her four terms, her Christian Democratic Party governed in coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD). This did not work out too well for Germany’s oldest party and the SPD languishes under 20 percent in the polls. The question this year is whether the Greens usurp its position as the main alternative to the Christian Democrats. By choosing Finance Minister Olaf Scholz as its candidate for chancellor, the SPD chose prudence rather than running a figure from its left-wing. The coronavirus pandemic also offers the SPD a campaign issue, not just for criticizing a potential Merkel successor in Health Minister Jens Spahn but also for creative policy thinking on the future of work and manufacturing capacity. This year will show if the SPD can change its fortunes or if it takes another election cycle to reclaim its mantle as Germany’s major center-left party.
Sudha David-Wilp, deputy director of the Berlin office and senior transatlantic fellow
Splinternet or Democratic Data Alliance?
This year will be a pivot point when it comes to state sovereignty over data and the internet. The trend toward “digital sovereignty” began in China, but governments from Brussels to Berlin to Washington to New Delhi have been rolling out new laws and policies to govern the Internet, some of which would erect digital walls along political borders. It is no longer controversial that domestic laws should apply in cyberspace, and a growing roster of digital risks merits government action: privacy violations, online disinformation, biased algorithms, and the economics of the industry that heighten inequality. But as governments exert ever more control over data and digital networks, the Internet risks fracturing along national boundaries. This may be the year when the “splinternet” is entrenched, and the idea of a global Internet begins to die. Or it may be the year when like-minded governments begin to collaborate in earnest on defining a democratic alternative, with rules that allow data to move freely and securely across borders, and ensure the Internet remains global.
Sam duPont, deputy director, Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative
Will Transatlantic Democracies Step Up in the Authoritarian Moment?
The Chinese Communist Party is overseeing modern-day gulags, extinguishing dissent in Hong Kong, and turning its ire toward democratic Taiwan. In Russia Vladimir Putin is squelching opposition and trying to prolong his rule indefinitely. Democracy is under assault in the United States and Europe from these authoritarians and from domestic actors fueled by conspiracy theories and hate, not to mention the devastating and deadly impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, Europe and the United States are drifting apart. The rot in U.S. politics extends well beyond Donald Trump, making the United States an uncertain partner. European countries are divided about how to deal with strategic challenges and hedging against U.S. decline. Amoral accommodationist temptations abound in European capitals. If one were to design a strategic landscape that should unite transatlantic democracies to confront a common challenge, it would be the current one. Yet it remains an open question whether the transatlantic alliance is up to the challenge of dealing with the new authoritarian moment. The answer to that question in 2021 will have consequences for decades to come and could determine the fate of democracy, not just in the transatlantic space, but globally.
Jamie Fly, senior fellow and senior advisor to the president
Twilight of a Dictator in Belarus
The Belarusian summer, a popular rising last year, has left long-time autocrat Alyaksandr Lukashenka badly shaken. Winter may have brought some calm, but come spring, citizens across the country will again mobilize and press for the resignation of their illegitimate ruler. Whether and how this continued standoff will be resolved depends on Belarusians and the international community alike. The country’s democratic movement needs to recover its impressive strength and adjust its tactics after an unprecedented wave of political repression. The Lukashenka regime will double down in its intimidation of critics and imitation of reforms, including constitutional changes, but faces dwindling resources and cohesion. Its principal sponsor, Moscow, may yet come to the conclusion that the strongman in Minsk is a bigger threat to traditionally close ties with Russia than the citizens of Belarus. Once they mend their ties and reaffirm their commitment to democracy, Europe and the United States need to launch a robust and joint strategy of supporting Belarusian democrats and punishing their oppressors.
Joerg Forbrig, senior fellow and director for Central and Eastern Europe
The EU to Get Fitter on Climate and Energy
This year, the European Parliament will play an important role in adopting the EU’s climate target to reduce emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030 and in aiming at collectively raising the level of ambition to bring it in line with the long-term goal of reaching climate neutrality by 2050, as set under the EU Green Deal. Building on this decision, the main focus of the European Commission for the year will be to table “Fit for 55,” a massive legislative package that will revise every law affecting climate and energy—from the Renewable Energy Directive to energy efficiency, the energy performance of buildings, land use and forestry, energy taxation, effort-sharing regulation, and the Emissions Trading System (ETS). The “Fit for 55” package will also contain new additions for the second quarter of 2021, such as the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism, which can be integrated into the ETS, is compatible with the World Trade Organization, and can counteract the risk of carbon leakage and ensure a level playing field for all players in the EU market.
Irene García, program officer, GMF Cities
From “Revolt” to Terrorism?
Terrorism continues to evolve. Old forms give way to new motives and tactics. There is nothing new in this, but it is important to understand what may be coming next. Religious extremism remains a threat, and networks like Al Qaeda and Islamic State remain capable of organizing and motivating attacks. This could well be the year in which unrest and political violence in Europe and the United States produce more lethal spin-offs. President Donald Trump’s incitement and the brief but violent take-over of the Capitol could be harbingers of more extreme acts aimed at terrorizing society as a whole. Such domestic, conspiracy-minded revolts against elites and their institutions could give rise to new forms of terrorism, against a backdrop of pandemic-driven anxiety and economic hardship. The “new” terrorist threat may well look more like the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 than the attacks of September 11th, 2001. We will be lucky to avoid it in 2021.
Ian Lesser, vice president and executive director of the Brussels office
Foreign Interference in Germany’s Parliamentary Elections
On September 26, Germans will elect the first government in 16 years that will not be headed by Angela Merkel. While many people will be focused on who succeeds her, significant attention should also be paid to how Germany secures the election from foreign adversaries, notably Russia. Because Chancellor Merkel has been a driving force in Europe behind sanctions against Russia, her impending retirement creates a tempting target for the Kremlin. Previously, German officials were worried that 16 gigabytes of data stolen by Russian hackers in a 2015 cyberattack on the country’s parliament could be released prior to the 2017 elections, although no such thing happened eventually. While Germany has taken several steps to further secure itself from foreign interference since then, Russian influence actors have also evolved their influence tradecraft and targeting methods as well. Germany will need to remain vigilant.
David Levine, elections integrity fellow, Alliance for Securing Democracy
Will Governments Upgrade Their Policymaking Toolbox?
The coronavirus pandemic is the perfect example of a globalized complex challenge—a real “unicorn” of a policy problem. Its border-defying impact has been felt across all sectors of society, highlighting the importance of stakeholder buy-in for solutions to work. Skepticism toward proposed vaccination measures is the perfect manifestation of the crisis of trust that policymakers are faced with. The pandemic has shed light on the inadequacy of “politics as usual” government. It has also proven that, with the correct incentives, policymakers can embrace cross-sector collaboration, implement rapid innovation, and tackle complex challenges with agile, experimental approaches. This year will show whether governments rise further to the task of redesigning policymaking processes and rebuilding trust in the political system. From agile methodologies for multidisciplinary collaboration to investing in digital collaboration infrastructure and tools such as online design sprints, integrating experimentation in policymaking, championing open government reforms and innovative citizen participation, and tweaking cross-border forums for political dialogue through better process design, there is a rich menu to choose from when it comes to upgrading the policymaking toolbox.
Chiara Rosselli, head of the Open European Dialogue
Turkey’s Reconciliatory Mood
While there has been an escalation of tension between Turkey and a long list of countries, including its transatlantic allies, in the past couple of years, the country’s leadership will try to reverse this situation in 2021 as it is taking its toll on its economy and foreign relations. While Turkey has lately made significant gains in Syria, Libya, and the South Caucasus, as well as disrupting the plans of others in the Eastern Mediterranean, this has come at the expense of weakening relations with allies and diplomatic isolation in its neighborhood. These two factors limit Turkey’s options and makes it a challenge to consolidate its gains. Moreover, Turkey may feel more pressure from the United States under the Biden administration. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has recently sent conciliatory messages to the United States and the EU, and rumors in Ankara suggest intense backdoor diplomacy with Israel and Egypt. Last but not least, the reconciliation of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with Qatar may open the way for Turkey’s rapprochement with the former two. This year will likely see intense diplomatic efforts by Turkey toward reconciliation with its transatlantic allies and regional neighbors, and maybe even a couple of success stories.
Özgür Ünlühisarcıklı, director of the Ankara office
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.