Paul Taylor, a POLITICO collaborating editor, writes the column “Europe At Large”.
PARIS – Dark cloud of the Omicron coronavirus variant may plunge your New Year’s plans into uncertainty, but there is still reason to hope that Europe can make significant progress on a range of issues thorny in 2022.
While it is clear that we will have to live with COVID-19 for some time yet, new political constellations are emerging since Germany’s change of government in December. These will offer the prospect of innovative solutions to long-standing problems in the European Union.
Granted, there are several things that could go wrong: an uncontrollable wave of more deadly coronavirus variants that are delaying economic recovery; a Russian military offensive against Ukraine; a Polish blockade of European institutions in the battle for the rule of law and European funds.
However, none of these worst-case scenarios are certain, or even probable. And there are compelling reasons to be more optimistic about the year ahead.
A coalition for investment
After years of fruitless battles over the much abused EU fiscal rules – which were suspended at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic – a consensus is emerging that to avoid strangling the recovery, the rules of budgetary discipline must be changed before they come into force. in 2023.
From the frugal north to the more spendthrift south, it is widely accepted that public investment will be the key to the success of the green and digital transformations of the European economy, and that obsolete debt and deficit limits should not prevent it. . In this sense, French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi jointly called for a reform to perpetuate the collective EU borrowing beyond the temporary stimulus fund created in 2020.
Germany’s new center-left coalition also wants to boost public investment to modernize its creaking transport, telecommunications and energy networks and meet ambitious climate change targets. So far, he has focused on reallocating unspent funds borrowed during the COVID-19 crisis, but Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his hawkish finance minister Christian Lindner have not ruled out another ad hoc appeal from the EU to bond markets if necessary.
Even the new coalition of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has pledged to dramatically increase public spending on housing, social protection and climate action, and to a more constructive European role than the Netherlands’ previous positioning as as leader of the “frugal” faction of EU skinflints.
Macron convened a summit in March on a post-pandemic economic model for Europe, which seems likely to highlight these new priorities, including increased public investment, a minimum wage in all EU countries, taxation fairer businesses, stricter trade and investment rules and a more proactive role for the EU in promoting European champions in key technologies – from batteries and microchips to cloud computing and space systems.
A Franco-German-Italian tiger in the tank
After a year of slump, with former German Chancellor Angela Merkel at dusk and Macron distracted by her expected candidacy for re-election in April 2022, the EU can now expect more energetic Franco-German leadership from May .
Centrist Macron’s prospects of winning a second term appear solid, but even if his center-right opponent, Valérie Pécresse, were to secure a surprise victory, France would remain on a pro-European trajectory. The main difference between the two French leaders would likely be their stance on migration, but even Macron has already pushed for tighter border controls and increased political control over the European Schengen area of passport-less travel.
The tripartite coalition in Berlin, with green ministers in key foreign affairs and economy and climate portfolios, has made EU deepening a high priority, as has the Italian government. Whether Draghi becomes President of Italy in 2022 and uses this role to guide a pro-European reformist government, or remains Prime Minister, Rome will be an active partner alongside Paris and Berlin in driving economic and political integration. European.
The EU could also start correcting its shortsighted geopolitical neglect of the Western Balkans next year. Once the French elections are over, there is a good chance that they will finally unblock accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia.
More severe on the rule of law
Germany’s new government has also made it clear that it will be less lenient when it comes to measures taken by the nationalist leaders of Poland and Hungary to undermine the independence of the judiciary, limit media freedom and civil rights. , and reject the primacy of EU law over national law. legislation.
Stronger support from Berlin and Paris should put the European Commission in a strong position to use its leverage to enforce European Court of Justice rulings, continuing to withhold stimulus funds from Warsaw and Budapest. While Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is unlikely to back down ahead of his country’s parliamentary elections in April, he so far faces the strongest challenge to his illiberal regime from a united pro opposition front. -European. Even if he is re-elected, he may well be in a weak position and seek a pragmatic solution.
Poland’s conservative Law and Justice Party does not face an election until 2023, but it could also come under pressure to find a compromise on rule of law issues, both to access EU funds and to strengthen European solidarity in the face of the migratory manipulation of Belarus on its eastern border and Russia’s saber strikes against neighboring Ukraine. There are weak signals that Warsaw is seeking to temper, if not end, its dispute with Brussels.
There is no such thing as a big external threat to keep the often disjointed EU-NATO relationship focused on core common interests.
In 2022, the two organizations will renew their strategic doctrines: the EU is expected to adopt its first joint threat analysis and define its level of military ambition in a strategic compass in March. And NATO is due to update its Strategic Concept for the first time in a decade at a Madrid summit this summer. The latest version of the concept, approved in 2011, defined Russia as a security partner, made no mention of China, and focused on counterterrorism and crisis management missions rather than major power competition and territorial defense.
NATO will remain the backbone of tough security in Europe, despite questions about the long-term US engagement, but many emerging security challenges now require the EU’s larger toolbox – including sanctions, institution building, development assistance, regulatory convergence, cybersecurity and disinformation fights – rather than NATO’s military hammer.
With unprecedented White House support for EU defense integration, expect a step forward in NATO-EU cooperation this year, as well as the appointment of a new Secretary General NATO member more sympathetic to EU defense efforts than outgoing Jens Stoltenberg.
Turning the corner after Brexit
Lord David Frost’s unfortunate departure as UK chief Brexit negotiator at least offers reason to hope that EU-UK relations could take a turn and start to recover from their deep funk post-Brexit.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson needs a solution to the Northern Ireland trade problem created by the protocol Frost negotiated in the 2020 EU-UK trade deal, creating a delicate customs border at the Sea of Ireland to avoid border controls on the island of Ireland. There are signs the UK wants a deal ahead of the Northern Ireland parliamentary elections in May, where Republican Sinn Féin could otherwise become the most powerful party.
After a year of frantically seeking new friends in the world while acting like the EU doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter anymore, London may finally be ready to deal with its closest neighbors and bigger ones business partners more pragmatically in 2022.
It would truly be a New Years miracle.