Research & Analysis

Europe: Top five developments in 2020

Migration continues to dominate the discourse in Europe. The failure of Dublin regulation and the test on the Schengen system as the result of the migrant crisis of 2015 continues to dominate the EU’s capacity to deal with this issue. The new proposal for a “New Pact for Migration and Asylum” was proposed by the European Commission in September.

COVID-19
In 2020, Europe, like the rest of the world was caught up with the COVID 19 pandemic.  The pandemic hit Italy, Spain, France and Britain the hardest, while countries like Germany, the Baltic countries and the Nordic-except for Sweden escaped the brutal impact of the pandemic. Having said this, the pandemic impact on Europe’s economy is looming.  To avert an economic crisis and deal with the crisis induced by the pandemic, EU’s leaders agreed on a recovery package of €2 364.3 billion that will include recovery effort, budget for 2021-27, and funds for safety nets for workers, businesses and member states.  The other major development that is related to Europe’s response to COVID is the demonstration of its prowess in R&D in the development of COVID vaccine by European institutions like Oxford University and biotechnology company BioNTech.

Brexit Negotiation
2020 marked the intense negotiation between the EU and Britain on Brexit. Boris Johnson, after his election as the Prime Minister in 2019, started the year 2020 with the signing of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement in January and paves the way for the UK’s exit from the European Union by 31 January 2020. The eleven months transition period between February and December witnessed intense and acrimonious negotiation issues of Northern Irish backstop, the rights of EU and UK citizens, and UK’s financial liabilities. But as the year comes to an end, fisheries- a symbolic issue tied to the idea of reclaiming sovereignty by Brexiters, governance- issues on how the deal will be enforced in the future without violating the spirit of the agreement, and state aid and regulations-also known as ‘level playing field’ that for Britain if it is to access EU market tariff and quota-free, it should not compromise or undercut EU’s regulations on labour, environmental protection, and subsidies for businesses.

After an intense negotiation to reach the deadline before 31 December or face a no-deal Brexit, a deal on fisheries, governance, security and law enforcement, and ‘a level playing field’ on trade with no tariff and quota-free was reached on 24th December 2020. The deal shows that for both the parties, a deal is better than nothing. The deal also shows that it is not easy to untangle Britain-EU relations, particularly when for almost 50 years the Europeanization of Britain’s domestic law and policymaking was deeply embedded within EU legal and policymaking framework.

Migration
Migration continues to dominate the discourse in Europe. The failure of Dublin regulation and the test on the Schengen system as the result of the migrant crisis of 2015 continues to dominate the EU’s capacity to deal with this issue. The new proposal for a “New Pact for Migration and Asylum” was proposed by the European Commission in September. Among the many proposals that will regulate and process migrants and asylums, one proposal that stands out is to end the quota system that requires the number of refugees each country should take in. The new proposal let EU member states to choose whether to accept refugees or take charge of returning that denied asylum to their home countries. The new migration policy proposal has generated a lot of criticism from member states and human rights organization on the ground that it is neither “isn’t tough enough, and for others, it isn’t humane enough”. The issue of migration is also closely tied to Europe’s neighbourhood. The prolonging and escalation of civil wars in Syria, Libya, Iraq, and the role of Turkey in hosting the refugees as part of the €6 billion EU-Turkey deal on ‘Facility for Refugees’ and at the same its regional ambition time through its involvement in the conflicts in the region will continue to put pressure on EU’s common refugee and asylum policy. 

Conflict
2020 witnessed conflict between Turkey and Cyprus with the involvement of Greece in support of Cyprus, the political crisis in Belarus, and the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. 

The tension between Cyprus-Greece and Turkey is traced back to 1974 when Turkey invaded Northern Cyprus and established a de facto state of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus recognized only by Turkey. Since then, numerous attempts at reunification of Cyprus have been attempted without much success. Even on the eve of the Republic of Cyprus joining the EU in 2004, an attempt was made but failed to lead. It is in this context that the current tension between Cyprus-Greece and Turkey can be located. The latest tension was the result of a conflict over access to natural resources that include gas and oil deposits under the Mediterranean Sea. The competing claim by Turkey on one side and Cyprus and Greece on the other over the drilling rights reignited in May 2019 when Turkey dispatched its drilling ship to the water of Northern Cyprus for a survey and strongly contested by both Greece and Cyprus who see this as a violation of Cyprus territorial sovereignty. The EU as a regional organization with Greece and Cyprus as its member states and Turkey as an accession candidate was dragged into the conflict. While the EU was able to impose a financial sanctioned against Turkey in 2019 over the crisis, this year, Cyprus, for a while, held the EU hostage by threatening to veto EU’s proposed sanction against Belarus unless the EU  blacklist Turkey over its action in Northern Cyprus. The end result was a compromise where the EU could get a vote from Cyprus on the sanction against Belarus, and the same time a strong statement in support of Cyprus and Greece and a warning against Turkey if it continues with the drilling in the Mediterranean Sea in Northern Cyprus.  

The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh is another event that marked the end of 2020. The war which lasted for 4 days is the leftover of a conflict of more than 30 years. The region of Nagorno-Karabakh which is also claimed by Azerbaijan has been in control of Armenians since 1994 witnessed a clash between Azerbaijan and Armenian forces in the month of September leading to the recapturing of most of the area under Nagorno-Karabakh by Azerbaijan and also the expulsion of Armenian from the region. In this conflict, regional players like Turkey-who supported Azerbaijan, Russia who supported the Armenian, and the EU played a different role. While the EU failed to take any action, Turkey- though denied, heavily intervened for Azerbaijan, and Russia’s brokered the ceasefire. 

The year cannot be passed without mentioning the political crisis in Belarus. The election that witnessed a sixth term for president Alexander Lukashenko was highly disputed and witnessed a mass protest in Minsk accompanied by police brutality against protesters. While the EU was able to put a sanctioned against 29 individuals and seven firms or organisations related to the Lukashenko regime, however, the political row over Cyprus-Turkey conflict that came in the middle of the crisis in Belarus and challenged the EU’s international credibility with Cyprus and Greece threatening to veto EU’s resolution against Belarus unless it takes an action against Turkey. 

These crises show that the geopolitics in Europe’s neighbourhood is complicated by the presence of many competing powers and demonstrated the increasing role of two players, Russia and Turkey. Whether it is in the Mediterranean region or the South Caucasus, Turkey as a major player often dictates EU’s neighbourhood policy. From the crisis in Armenia to Libya and Syria conflict, Turkey fingerprint in holding ransom to EU’s security, migration, border control is clearly visible. The entry of Russia in the war in Syria further challenged EU and NATO’s strategy in the region that further distance the chance of a resolution to the conflict. 

EU-China Relations
In December this year, China overtook the US as Europe top trade partner with a total trade of €425.5 billion as compared to €412.5 billion with the United States. In the midst of this deep trade interdependence between China and the EU, the year 2020 also witnessed friction in EU-China relations. The opacity of BRI funding mechanism, withheld of information on COVID19, human rights violation in Xinxiang and Tibet Autonomous Region, suspension of right and introduction of new security laws accompanied by the government clampdown on protesters escalated the tension between Europe and China  

China’s attempt to make an inroad into Western Europe through its BRI started in 2012 through Central and Eastern Europe with the launched of the 16+1 (now 17+1) and Italy that focused on massive investment in sectors such as energy, transport, information and communication technology (ICT), manufacturing, real estate, and mergers and acquisitions (M&As) in the region. However, eight years down the line the promise of 17+1 is in jeopardy with many of the participating countries are apprehensive of the viability, transparency, ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ and security implication of the BRI, and the EU’s criticism of the BRI implication in undermining its integration project. One such example of how deep this friction is the visit of the President of the Senate of the Czech Republic, Miloš Vystrčil, to Taiwan. The visit was heavily criticized by the Chinese and warned the Czech that it will pay a “heavy price” for this visit. This was followed by a counter-response from the German foreign minister that “Europeans act in close cooperation” and that “Threats don’t fit in here.” This response by the German foreign minister is a sign that the EU now takes China as a “systemic rival” and the strain in China’s BRI investment in Central and Eastern Europe. The apprehension of the Chinese presence was also reflected in the scaling back of European countries in allowing Huawei Technologies from investing in Europe’s 5G networks.

Though the EU did not recommend banning of Huawei however, following the ban by the US, European governments began to review Huawei Technologies 5G network investments with Britain imposing the ban on Huawei Technologies 5G network investments this year. This was followed by  Poland, and Romania and a review from the Czech Republic on the impact of Huawei Technologies on its national security. These developments in China-EU relations pointed to the difficult road ahead that European countries and the EU have to deal with China. Today Europeans economy is heavily depended on where European industries and manufacturers are heavily depended on China’s supply chain and increasing Chinese’s demand for European products. But as China surge ahead to expand its global power in a rush by trampling rule of law both domestically and abroad, the dilemma to the EU is how to deal with China when it is caught between moral values and the economy. 

 

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