What to Watch in 2022

January 06, 2022
As 2022 begins, eyes are trained on the Ukraine-Russia border as the potential for Russian escalation looms large.

With nerves taut and gas supplies to Europe squeezed, NATO members are holding emergency meetings as US and European diplomats scramble to find an acceptable resolution with the Kremlin. Threats emanating from Russia have been a regular feature of what to watch in transatlantic security all of the past years, but a full-scale Russian invasion has not been as salient a concern in a generation. Though China and climate change may still be the larger systemic challenges, Russia tops the transatlantic agenda as the year begins.

The coronavirus pandemic will shape this year too, but there is reason for cautious optimism that this will be the last one starting under this shroud. Beyond these issues, plenty of important political events await in the year ahead, including important elections in Europe and the United States, and the testing of Germany’s new government.

Read on to see what GMF experts will be watching in 2022.

Rachel Tausendfreund, Editorial Director

These are top issues in the transatlantic relationship to watch in 2022


Germany’s New Government and China 

How Germany’s new government positions itself on China will be absolutely crucial in shaping the broader European response to a more confident, assertive Beijing—and to the future of the transatlantic relationship. Will the first government of the post-Angela Merkel era pursue the clear-eyed, European course laid out in its coalition agreement? Or will it continue to prioritize Germany’s economic interests over longer-term strategic concerns, hedging out of fear of Chinese retaliation and a return of Donald Trump? China’s recent economic coercion against Lithuania is an early test of the government’s commitment to pay a price for European unity. Over the course of the year, I will be looking to see whether Chancellor Olaf Scholz can unite the three-party government of Social Democrats, Greens, and Free Democrats around a common China line in the economic, technology, and security spheres. A failure to do so would be extremely damaging. Perhaps the process of producing a formal China strategy, as promised in the coalition agreement, can help politicians in Berlin look beyond the immediate horizon and forge a longer-term consensus on what may be the most important strategic question of the coming decades.

Noah Barkin, Visiting Senior Fellow, Asia Program

The language on China is the strongest ever to appear in a German coalition agreement, reflecting growing concerns about the direction of China under Xi Jinping. The mentions of issues considered to be 'red lines' by the ruling Chinese Communist Party shows a readiness to speak more openly about differences with Beijing.

Vaccination Wars in Europe and the United States

The coronavirus pandemic has increased vulnerabilities to deceptive narratives and blurred the lines between (geo)politically and financially motivated information campaigns as well as between foreign and domestic information manipulators. Although online campaigns have sparked offline violence on various occasions and anti-vaccination protests appear to be gateways to far-right extremist movements, populist leaders have so far had difficulties seizing the moment to channel vaccine resistance into targeted political action. This could change in 2022. The Omicron variant has forced governments to impose faster and tougher measures. In Europe, Austria reacted first to impose mandatory vaccinations and the far-right Freedom Party is embracing anti-vaccination sentiments with potential new elections this year. In the United States, which is gearing up for midterm elections, former White House strategist Steve Bannon has hinted that a “war on the unvaccinated” could provoke an armed response by the predominantly Republican unvaccinated. Such a scenario would serve domestic and foreign masters of mass manipulation who have interests in weakening liberal democracies.

Naja Bentzen, Resident Fellow

Electing Italy’s Next President

On January 24, Italy’s parliament will start voting for the new president of the republic. President Sergio Mattarella made it clear that he is not seeking reelection, frustrating the hopes of those who wanted him to stay until the 2023 general elections. For them, Mario Draghi would have been the natural candidate to succeed him then after completing his term as prime minister. Draghi would be a very strong candidate, given his prestige, but many of the governing parties fear his ascending to the presidency would accelerate the end of the government and trigger snap elections. Against this backdrop, the other candidates are Constitutional Court Vice President Giuliano Amato, who served twice as prime minister before, Pierferdinando Casini, the former president of the Chamber of Deputies and longest-serving member of parliament, Justice Minister Marta Cartabia, Senate President Maria Elisabetta Casellati, and EU Economy Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni. Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi also hopes to be elected, but his candidacy is perceived by center-left parties to be too divisive. In the history of elections for Italy’s presidency, there is one consistent rule: surprises are not that surprising. This election matters for Italy and Europe as it will set the tone of the country’s politics for years to come, years in which it will have a chance to transform and modernize itself thanks to the Next Generation EU funds.

Dario Cristiani, IAI/GMF Senior Fellow

An Explosive Energy Situation in Europe

The year opens with several unresolved energy issues in Europe. One is the intra-EU controversy over the status of nuclear and gas as future-oriented energy sources on the continent. Plans to assign a green status to both have exposed deep splits among and within European countries. Another headache is the low levels of natural-gas reserves as a result of reduced Russian supplies over the last months. Barring an exceptionally mild winter, Europe may well run out of this key commodity. Yet another challenge is the political crisis in Belarus and a possible Russian military escalation in Ukraine. With the two countries hosting key gas arteries to Europe, deterioration in either or both will likely jeopardize supplies. Finally, the highly controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline awaits clearance from the German authorities to operate. This Russian-German project is opposed by much of Europe and the United States, with no political solution in sight. These compounded energy questions make for an explosive mix that may easily spark political and economic crisis.

Joerg Forbrig, Director for Central and Eastern Europe

Hungary’s Elections Will Test the EU

This will be a crucial year for democracy and rule of law in the European Union. Ongoing autocratization in some member states may be further entrenched or reversed depending on two key developments. Hungary’s general elections in April offer voters a chance to get rid of the EU’s longest-serving illiberal government that degraded the country’s political system to a hybrid regime, but they may also challenge the EU with the first significantly rigged elections in a member state. How the other member states and the EU institutions react to this challenge, and whether they will be ready to support a large OSCE electoral observation mission or to sanction the Fidesz party if it held on to power through electoral irregularities, can have long-term impact on the integrity of elections in Central and Eastern Europe in general, and in Poland in particular. In a similar vein, a premature disbursement of the suspended payments to Hungary and Poland from the European Recovery Fund would both undermine leverage on the two autocratizing regimes. If the rule-of-law conditions it set out are not met—and they will not be met—by Budapest and Warsaw, the European Commission should resist pressure from accommodating member states and suspend the funds indefinitely. Otherwise, 2022 could turn out to be the year of missed opportunities for the EU on the rule-of-law front.

Daniel Hegedüs, Visiting Fellow for Central Europe

Germany’s New Government Takes the Lead in the G7

Germany enters 2022 led by a three-party coalition that is unprecedented and untested. Putting together the coalition agreement was an exercise carefully orchestrated by new Chancellor Olaf Scholz, whose leadership skills will now be tested not only in sustaining consensus in Berlin but also steering through tensions within the European Union and forging common ground within the G7, whose presidency Germany now assumes. The government has stated that the climate crisis is a top priority on the G7 Agenda but the continuing challenge of the coronavirus pandemic, dealing with Russian threats to Ukraine, and relations with China will also be demanding focus. Trying to square circles of perspectives and policies within the G7 membership is a daunting task for a newly formed government still working on synchronizing the positions of its constituent parties, which have had divergent views, and with foreign policy something of a footnote in the coalition agreement. Scholz will need to secure cohesion within his own government in presenting Germany’s agenda during its G7 presidency. Many challenges will be part of the G7 script, be they complex issues such as the future of energy supplies, global digital regimes, outreach to Africa, and competing with China as well as confronting fault lines with an aggressive leadership in Russia. As the new government makes its G7 debut, look for how it uses Germany’s leverage in dealing with delicate balances of national interests and multilateral challenges. Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock suggested that the slogan of the G7 should be the anthem of FC Liverpool: “You’ll never walk alone.” We will see how successful Germany’s game plan is in 2022.

Jackson Janes, Resident Senior Fellow

Progress in EU-US Cooperation in Technology

This year the United States and the European Union will finally make progress on their three urgent technology policy priorities—platform accountability, economic competitiveness, and national security—by working together. Despite numerous congressional hearings with tech executives, only the EU will take significant action on platform accountability through its Digital Services Act. On competitiveness, the United States moved first to enact legislation increasing spending on semiconductors and broadband, though the EU is planning similar measures. The EU is also promoting strategies for “digital sovereignty” to develop its own digital industries, which could backfire. US national security concerns around Europe’s dependence on Huawei infrastructure was no sooner resolved than new tensions have arisen over future standards on 5G and 6G as well as on investment screening and export controls. On all three priorities, transatlantic efforts that are underway through the new EU-US Trade and Technology Council, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and competition authorities promise to create win-win solutions.

Karen Kornbluh, Senior Fellow and Director, Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative

There are clearly still tensions — the leaders need to reconcile this new vision [for more coordination on tech and trade] with their domestic industries’ interests, which is why there’s less progress on semiconductors and platforms at this point than might have been expected.

Protecting the US Midterm Elections

This November, the United States will have its first federal general elections since the fateful 2020 presidential election. While many people will be focused on whether Republicans can retake the House of Representatives and/or the Senate, the most important issue is the integrity of the upcoming elections. Since 2020, many states have made it more difficult for eligible voters to successfully cast their ballots. While threats to the integrity of US elections are increasing, funding to protect the electoral infrastructure continues to lag. Further, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ensure that election administration and voting are perceived as legitimate across the political spectrum. Whether the United States can adequately administer midterm elections that are supported by large portions of its citizenry could go a long way toward determining its efficacy in defending democracy, not only at home, but abroad as well.

David Levine, Elections Integrity Fellow, Alliance for Securing Democracy

Presidential and Parliamentary Elections in France

In April and June, the French will elect their president and members of the National Assembly. President Emmanuel Macron is currently expected to secure reelection, polling at approximately 25 percent, but the race could remain open until the last minute given the level of undecided voters and the potentially low turnout. The political spectrum tilts strongly to the right, with 25 percent of the electorate leaning to the left of the centrist president and 50 percent to his right. The health and socioeconomic implications of the coronavirus crisis could change the picture over the next four months, but the campaign has so far been structured around the topics of sovereignty, identity, and environment. The two main far-right candidates—Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour—consistently poll at a combined score of 30 percent and focus almost exclusively on immigration and Islam. In this political context, Macron often appears as an outlier in terms of European and foreign policies, and the results of the 2022 elections could mean a real change for French international priorities. Relations with the United States, Germany, Russia, and the Muslim world, as well as France’s position within the EU and NATO, would be deeply impacted if a different leadership emerges in Paris.

Martin Quencez, Fellow and Deputy Director, Paris Office

It was an impossible mission. It was necessary to include a certain number of countries that do not represent democratic values, either because they are important allies in the framework of NATO or other American partnerships in the world, or because there was no question of isolating potentially important countries in the competition with China.
Translated from French

Infrastructure and Connectivity Competition with China

One of the most important areas to watch this year is a slow-burn issue that will condition the long-term competition with China across the developing world. The United States and Europe have struggled to mobilize their prodigious economic resources to go toe-to-toe with Beijing on infrastructure and connectivity finance, frequently leaving the field open for Chinese offers in areas ranging from telecoms to energy to ports. After several false starts, the year ahead will be the test for whether that has changed. The EU’s new Global Gateway initiative was dismissed as “Brussels bullshit” by the Economist a few weeks ago but those who follow the issue closely are cautiously optimistic that it can translate into a more strategically directed venture than prior efforts. The EU-Africa summit in February will be the first indicator of whether progress has really been made. With an eye on the more nascent US Build Back Better World plans too, many developing states are now watching closely to see whether the Western powers have adjusted to the new competitive landscape. For all their frustrations with the Belt and Road initiative, and the new resources available from Japan and other democracies, a failure by the United States and Europe to provide viable alternatives of their own will often leave China as the default choice. The consequences for the competitiveness of Western firms across the developing world, the reach of China’s surveillance state, and Beijing’s global military logistics would be stark.

Andrew Small, Senior Transatlantic Fellow, Asia Program

[This] marked the first serious effort from the European side to put packages together and figure out financing mechanisms, so countries considering taking loans from China have an alternative option.

What Impact for the Global Compact for Migration?

Recognizing that migration governance needs to be built on cooperation in an interdependent world, UN member states adopted the Global Compact for Migration (GCM) in 2018. Striving for safe, orderly, and regular migration, it represents the first intergovernmental agreement covering migration governance in a holistic manner. As it remains non-binding, the central question is what difference has it made. This year brings the opportunity to deliver answers. The first International Migration Review Forum (IMRF) will take place in May. Given its multi-stakeholder approach, not only states but also civil society, the private sector, and local authorities should seize the opportunity to participate, taking stock of the impact of proactive engagement (or passive neglect) as topics such as climate migration, preventing loss of life, migrant-inclusive coronavirus responses, and youth-led innovation will be discussed during the IMRF and its preparatory process. The IMRF presents a pivotal opportunity for non-state actors and local authorities to draw on national GCM commitments to gain support for local action, to hold national governments accountable, and to challenge the idea prevalent among many Northern countries that GCM implementation is to happen mainly in the Global South. Migration is a worldwide phenomenon—it must be addressed that way.

Janina Stürner-Siovitz, Visiting Fellow, GMF Cities

Saudi Arabia’s Transformation Intensifying

In the last few years, Saudi Arabia has made great strides to liberalize its economy. Given the size of that economy, that would be news enough. But what receives far less attention, though promises to be far more consequential, in ways we can hardly begin to conceive, is the country’s stunning religious transformation. Therefore, over the course of this year look out for signs of this trend intensifying, such as more high-profile concerts, fewer restrictions on women, a renewed focus on promoting interfaith relations, large-scale international tourism and, more confident young Saudis engaging in a cultural renaissance. Things have been changing in the country. The religious police have largely retreated. Women are far freer to dress according to their own judgment. All Saudis can attend live events, including concerts and musical festivals, which would have been entirely unthinkable only a few years ago. It is a transformation many supposed experts said was unlikely to happen for generations, if ever. And yet it is not just happening; it is accelerating. Witness the breakthrough meetings in 2021 between Muhammad Al-Issa, the leader of the globally influential Muslim World League, with prominent Jewish leaders, his visit to Auschwitz, or his open acknowledgement of Jewish concerns. In a Middle East battered by sectarian politics, these efforts have tremendous value. But this matters not just for the Middle East. Keeping in mind Saudi Arabia’s status in the world’s fastest-growing faith, it is hard to imagine that this transformation will not irrevocably transform the ways in which billions of people see themselves—and each other—forever.

Muddassar Ahmed, Non-resident Fellow, Leadership Programs

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