What Awaits Europe in 2022?

Heightened tensions in Eastern Europe have taken over the continent’s attention and that of the United States in recent weeks, for good reason. It is easy to get swallowed up in the current crisis, but it is just as important to look beyond at what is on the horizon for the region this year. This piece offers an overview of the most important events on the agenda, what they mean, and their implications for the transatlantic community.

Framework Events

Several European countries will be in the spotlight this year for their chairmanship or hosting of core European and transatlantic institutions.

The rotating French presidency of the Council of the European Union from January to June 2022 will be an opportunity for President Emmanuel Macron to push his high ambitions for the bloc. It will be followed by the Czech rotating presidency, performed under a new, pro-European government in Prague that succeeded Andrej Babis’s increasingly Euroskeptic tenure in December 2021. With Sweden coming next in 2023, the trio has an opportunity to push important files in Brussels—many of interest to the United States—from digital regulation to European defense.

Next, the NATO summit in Madrid in June will directly impact the future orientation of the alliance. When they convene in Spain, NATO leaders will endorse a new Strategic Concept—the conceptual foundation for NATO activities, and the first since 2010. This is significant: when allies endorsed the prior document, Russia had not yet invaded Ukraine, the challenge of a rising China was not on the radar of NATO planners, and the implications of other issues like climate change, hybrid warfare, and emerging and disruptive technologies were considered only marginally. And while the organization has evolved its practices and doctrine accordingly over the years, the adoption of a new Strategic Concept is an opportunity to embed those sometimes ad hoc adjustments within a broader strategic vision. The process also serves to demonstrate solidarity during a critical time for Euro-Atlantic security and crystallize for internal and external audiences how NATO views each challenge. This clarity will be all the more critical as the alliance undergoes a leadership transition: Jens Stoltenberg, NATO secretary general since 2014, will depart in September. He has been a polished diplomat and provided a steady hand through many crises. Regardless of how the situation in Ukraine plays out, his replacement will need to be a seasoned hand and get up to speed immediately.

On the economic side, Germany and its new government take over the presidency of the Group of Seven (G7) just as countries around the world attempt to exit the Covid-19 crisis and recover from its economic impact. Its priorities are global health, including tackling the coronavirus pandemic; climate and security; and resilience of democracies. The last may prove the trickiest given democratic backsliding in many countries, the increasing gridlock plaguing international institutions, and China’s use of economic coercion to secure influence. However, the new German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, should be well placed to make the case for both climate protection and democratic resilience, as she hails from The Greens, which campaigned on renewing democratic values globally.

Finally, Poland’s chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will be another test of the state of international cooperation. Set to focus on the OSCE’s “fundamental tasks” (e.g., conflict resolution, fundamental rights, security-building measures), the chairmanship will also look at building resilience related to public health and climate change. Poland has already established its strong support for Ukraine through the OSCE and its focus on ending the annexation of Crimea, but current developments will make any resolution challenging. In addition, the chairmanship will be overshadowed in part by Poland’s continued undermining of the rule of law at home and of freedoms that are central to the OSCE’s mission, such as press freedom and equal rights for women and men. Its ambitions will necessarily be limited by how much authority it can project on this front.

Political Developments

This year will also witness a slew of important elections across Europe and test governments that have just taken office or been newly reelected—most notably Germany, but also the Czech Republic and Portugal.

In the middle of its rotating EU presidency, France will head to the polls for presidential (April 10 and 24, first and second round) and legislative (June 12 and 19) elections. This is a pivotal moment for both France and the European Union: it will either grant Macron a second term to consolidate his platform or usher in a right-wing or far-right victory as the left remains fragmented. Though the standard-bearer on the far-right has not yet surfaced between Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour, their strong showing in the polls remains a concern for France’s pro-European orientation and its status within NATO. Should Macron win, he will also need to retain a majority in the June legislative elections to consolidate his gains and enact his agenda.

Another large NATO member will face electoral changes soon. No later than May 5, the United Kingdom will organize local elections that will be a test of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party’s popularity—or lack thereof. Recent scandals about parties held during Covid-19 lockdowns, the continued economic fallout from Brexit, and questions around public procurement for Covid-19-related contracts are plaguing the Tories. Though this will not impact their 80-seat majority in the House of Commons, it is a bellwether for their future. At the same time, elections will be held for the Northern Ireland Assembly amid tensions over Brexit arrangements and a rise in violence in the province. For the first time, nationalist party Sinn Fein could fare better than unionists, triggering alarms in London that reunification demands could surface again.

Three other elections have a direct connection to the state of democracy and rule of law in Europe. Hungary’s elections on April 3 are the first opportunity in a long time for the united opposition to defeat Viktor Orban, who has consolidated power and eroded checks and balances for a decade. Unequal access to media and funding, internal divisions, and gerrymandering make this an uphill climb, and all eyes will be on this poll; it could pull Hungary back into the pro-EU fold and slowly rebuild democratic and anti-corruption safeguards—or push it further away. The same day, Serbians will elect a new parliament and president. Incumbent Aleksandr Vucic is poised to win after years of consolidation of power and media, facing a weak opposition. Finally, on April 24 another right-wing populist, Slovenian prime minister Janez Jansa, will aim to win a fourth term. An ally of Orban and increasingly Euroskeptic, Jansa has taken steps to weaken press freedoms in recent years and faces an opposition scrambling to unite against him.

In Sweden, Social Democratic prime minister Magdalena Andersson faces a challenge from the center-right that will be settled on September 11 in the general election. She was sworn in in November 2021, had to resign after just a few hours due to a lost vote on the budget, and was sworn in again shortly thereafter through a confidence-and-supply agreement with several parties. A center-right win could usher in a tougher line on migration and anti-crime policy. Theoretically, it could also move Sweden closer to joining NATO, although this would likely require one of the currently anti-accession parties to change its stance given the party breakdown in the Swedish Riksdag. (The Swedish public is currently split on the issue into roughly equal thirds in terms of opposition, support, and indecisiveness, so there may not be a significant electoral incentive to change policy.)

Finally, the Western Balkans will be back on the agenda in the fall with Bosnia and Herzegovina’s general election on October 2. This election comes at a time of heightened tensions. Threats by Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik to withdraw the country’s Serb-majority Republika Srpska from state institutions have put Bosnia’s post- Dayton constitution in jeopardy. This is compounded by calls for electoral reform ahead of the election. Indeed, under Bosnia’s current constitution, citizens who do not belong to one of the country’s three main ethnic groups (Bosniak, Serb, or Croat) are not eligible to run for parliament or the presidency; in 2009, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the law was discriminatory and must be amended, but this has not happened.

Meanwhile, the main Bosnian Croat political party, HDZ BiH, is demanding reforms that would mean only ethnic Croats could vote to elect the Croat member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency. Without such concessions, Bosnian Croats have threatened to boycott the election, which would further delegitimize the country’s political institutions. Both the United States and the European Union have dispatched diplomats to negotiate reform before the election, but multiple rounds of talks have so far ended in failure. Western efforts to break through the intransigence of Bosnia’s political elites will require much greater engagement if they are to be successful. If they are not, this will showcase Europe and the United States’ inability to break important deadlocks in the region.

European Union in the Spotlight

This year will dictate the European Union’s economic and security trajectory for years to come. On the economic side, the first recovery fund payouts will be sent to countries according to the plans they submitted to the European Commission last year. Some countries like Hungary and Poland may face delays in those payments due to rule of law breaches, unless the Court of Justice of the European Union strikes down this mechanism on February 16. Debates are set to start on potential reform of debt and deficit rules (rules enshrined in the Stability and Growth Pact, or SGP), in which Germany and the Netherlands’ new governments could be more open to flexibility on certain debt limits, shifting the balance between “frugals” and other member states. The recovery payments combined with SGP reform will have a serious impact on long-term economic recovery in the European Union. In addition, the use of the rule of law mechanism as well as strong controls on payouts will be crucial to ensure these funds—hundreds of billions of euros—are not misused or feeding corruption.

Several big pieces of legislation will both strengthen the European Union’s role as a standard-setter on digital and climate issues and impact its relationship with the United States. Both sides launched a Trade and Technology Council (TTC) last year in Pittsburgh with a long list of working groups (e.g., artificial intelligence, technology standards, supply chain security). This work will continue in parallel to EU negotiations on cornerstone digital legislation like the Digital Markets Act and the Digital Services Act, both of which will either align or create friction with the work of the TTC. The TTC will offer an important channel to ensure concerns can be discussed privately and early rather than laid out publicly after legislation has already been finalized. Similarly, the anticipated finalization of the EU Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism by the end of 2022 and adoption of the EU Taxonomy (regulating investments in green technologies) will affect transatlantic cooperation on the climate transition.

EU efforts to align with the United States on strategic technologies are tied to a broader ambition to increase the bloc’s standing as a geopolitical actor. Much of this is geared toward competing with China, but some is also driven by ideas in Brussels (and Paris) of what the European Union ought to be: a cohesive, independent, and strong actor in a multipolar world. This is manifesting across multiple policy areas, from strategic technologies to trade and geo-economics. Measures like the pending European Chips Act seek to boost European semiconductor supply and reduce dependencies on external suppliers. The shelving of an investment deal with China and recent proposal for a foreign policy instrument to deter economic coercion demonstrate a growing EU instinct for self-defense and an awareness of the means to attain it. Other areas of trade remain challenging, for example, a long-delayed free trade agreement with the South American trading bloc Mercosur, which the French presidency is not likely to prioritize. The European Union also aims to provide an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative with its Global Gateway proposal—which could align well with the goals of the Biden administration’s Build Back Better World partnership.

Finally, new developments are expected in the defense and security environment, a priority for France’s EU presidency. Contributing to the “geopolitical Europe” ambitions articulated by EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen in March, member states will finalize the EU Strategic Compass, which sets out a common threat assessment and priorities for the European Union right before NATO’s Strategic Concept comes out in June (the amount of overlap is unclear so far, although a new EU-NATO Joint Declaration is expected in the spring). A summit between the European Union and African Union on February 17 and 18 will indicate whether relations between both continents can be stabilized—amid rising tensions in Mali and questions over the future of the EU military mission there—and put on an equal footing. Continued instability in Libya, the recent coup in Burkina Faso, the European Union’s focus on migration in its relations with Africa, and vaccine inequity concerns are just a few of the dynamics complicating the dialogue. A Western Balkans conference in June will also assess the European Union’s commitment to the region’s EU integration. The European Union’s inability to contribute to the resolution of serious tensions has plagued its relationship with the region, and this conference will be an opportunity to strengthen these efforts.

Conclusion

Europe is gearing up for a lot of action in 2022, and the dynamics presented here are just the tip of the iceberg. It is understandably hard for policymakers to look beyond the current crisis in Ukraine, rising energy prices, the Covid-19 health and economic impacts, and inflation worries. However, as these challenges have shown, looking ahead is crucial to build contingencies for the crises and surprises to come.

Donatienne Ruy is an associate fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Colin Wall is a research associate with the CSIS Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program. Dejana Saric is a research assistant with the CSIS Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2022 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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Donatienne Ruy
Director, Executive Education and Abshire-Inamori Leadership Academy
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Colin Wall
Associate Fellow, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program

Dejana Saric