2021 has been a year like few others for the European Union. Several parallel crises continued to dominate the political landscape in Europe, from the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic to a new Migrant Crisis at the Eastern border. Many of these crises are going to reach new highpoints in 2022. The response of the European Union in 2022 will likely define the future of the European project.
The start of a new year is often a time for spirited optimism. While people promise themselves to live healthier and more fulfilled lives, their political leaders often offer grand visions of a better future, starting in the following months.
The European Union (EU) has a good reason to long for a more optimistic message this year. 2021 has ended with the escalation of several longer-running crises: The Omnicron variant continues to ravage the continent, despite an aggressive push for more vaccinations; the rule of law crisis in Poland and Hungary is moving from one high point to the next; the situation in Belarus seems to be provoking another migration crisis; amidst all of this Europe is only learning to grapple with the far-reaching ramifications of nearly 2 years of pandemic emergency. With the culmination of these different developments in early 2022, the EU once again stands at a crossroad.
Far-right populism has been a constant feature of European politics in the last decade. But now, it is once again creeping closer to the centres of power in Europe. Like a dark cloud, Europe’s near future is overshadowed by the looming French presidential elections in April 2022.
The embattled Emmanuel Macron is seeking re-election in an increasingly aggressive political climate in France. While Macron is currently leading the polls, this is mostly due to the split of the votes of the French Right on three different candidates, Valérie Pécresse (Les Republicains), Marine Le Pen (Rassemblement national) and Éric Zemmour. A defeat of Macron, especially by the populists Le Pen or Zemmour, would put the European project into serious jeopardy. While Le Pen has abandoned her party’s former plans to leave the European Union altogether, she now seeks its radical transformation into an “alliance of nations”.
A win by the unabashedly pro-European Macron would, however, offer the backing he needs to reinvigorate his push for serious deepening of European integration. And in Mario Draghi, the former head of the European Central Bank (ECB) and newly inaugurated Italian Prime Minister, and Olaf Scholz, the newly-minted German chancellor and head of a “progressive coalition”, he would now find partners that are more welcoming towards his grand plans for Europe than their predecessors.
Rule of law crisis
Similarly, the ensuing rule of law crisis in Europe, with Poland and Hungary as its protagonists, will move to a point of climactic escalation in 2022. In the next 6 to 8 weeks, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) is expected to decide, whether the European Commission can withhold funds from Member States who seriously threaten the rule of law.
Should the ECJ, as is expected, approve such a financial conditionality mechanism, the EU would have a crucial tool to tackle Member States that have been defying the judgements and orders of European Courts to stop the process of undermining judicial independence. The judgement will come at a critical time, only shortly before the parliamentary elections in Hungary this April.
Whether or not the broad opposition coalition will be able to topple Victor Orban’s authoritarian government, will likely not only determine the future of democracy in Hungary, but also determine the future of the EU as a union of common values such as democracy, the rule of law and the protection of human rights.
Another major emergency that continues to face the EU comes from its border with Belarus. The authoritarian government of Alexander Lukashenko has opened his country to migrants seeking to reach Europe through its borders with Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania. This comes as the latest stage of confrontation with the European Union, which has imposed harsh sanctions on Belarus in response to the upheaval after the 2020 Presidential Elections.
The mere threat of another Migrant Crisis, with all the ensuing political ramifications, has already shaken up leaders across Europe. But the crisis simultaneously also gives the EU the chance to strengthen their joint foreign policy and to show resilience towards strongmen such as Lukashenko. At the same time, offering the migrants caught in the midst of these developments a humane and dignified treatment allows the EU to be the strong beacon of human rights it claims to be.
At the same time, Europe’s leaders will have to decide how to envision a post-Covid Europe. While the pandemic is anything but over, there are already important decisions to be made for the future of the bloc: Will the EU finally give up their strict fiscal responsibility criterions, as some are calling for? How will the Green Deal, the ecological transformation of Europe’s economy, be implemented in detail? In 2022, the Member States are once again tasked to decide which path to take.
Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of the European Union, famously quipped in his memoirs: Europe will be forged in crises and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises. The year 2022 will offer the culmination of a myriad of crises that will determine the future of the European Union. Whether the EU and its Member States will also use these as opportunities to develop a stronger and more integrated Europe, will likely not only shape the course of this year, but of the whole European project.