Global Europe Brief: What’s in stock for 2021?

Global Europe Brief. [EPA-EFE/ Stephanie Lecocq / EP / Shutterstock/Christos S]

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2020 was supposed to be the year to end Brexit, wave goodbye to Trump (check) and settle intra-European squabbles.

In reality, it was also a year where European realised that there is not necessarily that much strategic about their autonomy and not much autonomy in their strategy (yet).

After the EU’s first-ever defence review painted a gloomy picture for the bloc’s ability to achieve ‘strategic autonomy’ security pundits determined that the EU is not doing enough to address major shortfalls.

In a certain sense, with global challenges from all sides mounting, it feels like Groundhog Day  once again wasting editorial space to address a repeat of the theoretical discussions.

However, in 2021, the bloc aims to draw up a military doctrine, the ‘Strategic Compass’, to define future threats and ambitions. It promises to be a painfully difficult consultation process, but at least there’s agreement on the practical steps.

“It is impossible to say how significant the danger is for the compass to become just another piece of paper as the process only started and, frankly, still has to be filled with actual content beyond the threat analysis,” Torben Schütz, research fellow for armament policy at the German Council on Foreign Relations, told EURACTIV recently.

“I think the ‘Strategic Compass’ is much more than just a nice political effort, but leaders will have to resist the pressure to water it down in the interest of unity – that’s hard and calls for some moral and political courage,” Ben Hodges, a retired US general who commanded American army forces in Europe, told EURACTIV.

One of the crucial questions Europeans will need to find an answer to this year, sooner rather than later, is what they would actually do with their strategic autonomy?


PORTUGUESE PRIORITIES. Lisbon said it will try to conclude a free-trade agreement between the EU and the South American trade bloc Mercosur during its six-month EU presidency, and attempt to expand Europe’s ties with other potential trade partners.

At the same time, Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa said Europe must be an autonomous global actor and it would be “a terrible sign” if the EU blocked a recently concluded investment agreement with China in order to coordinate with Washington.

The EU and China reached an agreement in principle in December, but the deal could cause tension with the new US administration weeks after President-elect Biden proposed a transatlantic dialogue on “the strategic challenge posed by China’s growing international assertiveness”.

A bit closer to home, the contentious EU migration pact, has now passed as a ‘hot potato’ by the Germans to the Portuguese EU presidency.

MULTILATERALISM. The European Commission’s work programme for this year includes a  proposal for ‘Joint Communication on strengthening the EU’s contribution to a rules‑based multilateralism’, targeted at reforms to the World Health Organization and World Trade Organization. Diplomats in Brussels hope that with Biden in the White House, we might see Washington’s return to the Iran nuclear deal (and other agreements).

MED & SOUTH. It also will propose a ‘renewed partnership with our Southern neighbourhood’, most likely a box-ticking exercise for those left wondering how badly the crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean was managed last year.

As the crisis escalated between Athens and Ankara, Germany stepped in as a mediator to help ease tensions. According to Greece’s former Foreign Affairs Minister Nikos Kotzias, this was a mistake.

ICY WATERS. To fill another strategic hole, diplomats are working on the long-overdue ‘Communication on the Arctic’. Four years after the EU adopted its Arctic Policy, it is preparing work on a new strategy document. Several countries are currently updating their Arctic policies and the insistence on declaring it a ‘security policy low tension area’ is fading as the geopolitical race for the Arctic accelerates.

“The Arctic has long been described as a security policy low tension area with favourable conditions for international cooperation. However, the past decade’s dramatic climate changes and new geostrategic realities in the region mean new challenges and changed preconditions for Swedish Arctic policy”, the latest Swedish strategy update stated.

EU-AFRICA RELATIONS. The EU’s plans to strike a ‘strategic partnership’ with Africa were one the victims of the COVID-19 pandemic. After the European Commission set out its stall in a March 2020 strategic paper, summits were cancelled and it is unclear whether EU and African Union leaders will agree on an agenda with the ambition needed for a genuine ‘strategic partnership’ this year.


BREXIT, AGAIN. With Brexit details being in its last legal stages, EU security officials are thinking already about how future defence/security relations with London could look like in the future.

“It’s important to note that on the mandate by European Council to negotiators the EU-side was quite open-minded, on the other hand, it’s the decision of UK not to move in that direction,” an EU diplomat told reporters recently.

UK officials told EURACTIV recently that a possibility of separate security treaties between the bloc and Britain had been examined, but were shelved for the time being. A recent deal between EU member states on conditions to allow countries outside the bloc to participate in joint defence projects would technically make British participation possible.

“We have to look at the relationship with the UK not like on a third country, but on a very important partner that has been with us for decades, in the future who knows, but in the short-term,” the EU diplomat said.

“I don’t believe we will have to have the time to deal with this. Europe has been developing its defence cooperation, we are going to deepen this, can others cooperate with us? Yes, there are rules about it,” he concluded.

NATO REFORMS. Can reform and refocus save ‘brain dead’ NATO this year? Maybe. NATO’s recent reform report has drawn up recommendations on how the military alliance should tackle new challenges in its backyard.

The next stage in the process will be for NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg to consult with allied capitals and draw up a policy paper that will be presented to NATO leaders at a summit, potentially before summer.

MILITARY MISSIONS. There could be some movement on European military missions this year and potentially a debate about their priorities and conduct.

France, one of the main proponents of stronger EU engagement in Africa, is making the start with the chairman of the French Defence Committee having scheduled a public debate on the value of the mission in Mali for February. An interesting aspect to watch: Will Paris decrease its military presence in the Sahel region, increasingly under fire domestically due to the increase of civilian and French military casualties, before the French presidential election 2022?

US TROOPS. A Trump administration plan to withdraw 12,000 troops out of Germany by shifting some of the forces to Italy and Belgium faces an uncertain future as the Biden administration prepares to take over.

The US House of Representatives had passed their version of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act in December, which includes a provision that no troops be removed from Germany until the US Defense Department submits a detailed timeline and financial plan for the withdrawal, then carries out a waiting period of 120 days.


Europe is counting down the days until Inauguration Day on 20 January.

US House of Representatives Democrats plan a vote to urge VP Mike Pence to take steps to remove President Donald Trump from office after his supporters’ deadly storming of the Capitol, before attempting to impeach him again. At the same time, worries mount the closer the inauguration looms. So far, analysts rightly don’t dare to predict whether Trump will go down without a fight.

WAKE-UP CALL. The EU’s chief diplomat Joseph Borrell said that last week’s siege of the US Capitol exposed the dangers of allowing the degradation of democratic values to go unchecked and disinformation to spread on social media. “What we saw on Wednesday was only the climax of very worrying developments happening globally in recent years. It must be a wake-up call for all democracy advocates,” Borrell said.

Most European leaders condemned last week’s storming of the US Capitol by pro-Trump activists. Europe’s far-right leaders, which so far have sympathised with Trump, are meanwhile balancing between reproof and self-defence.

SUMMITEERING AHEAD. In Europe, expectations are high for the incoming US Ambassador to the EU, on whom only best guesses seeped through.

“It’s actually incredible how much hope we hear the EU bubble pinning towards that person, he or she will have to make many calls and fast to reassure and restore what has been destroyed under an erratic Gordon Sondland,” a diplomatic source told EURACTIV.

Biden’s first potential appearance in Brussels is expected to be early in 2021 (some dates in March are being tested), after he was officially invited to attend a NATO summit by Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and the EU was quick to also offer to roll out the red carpet for him to attend one of the European Council meetings in spring.


No significant breakthrough is expected in terms of the EU’s enlargement agenda this year.

However, in the Western Balkans, where all EU hopefuls (bar Turkey) are located, the year ahead will be dominated by Europe’s quest for a vaccine and efforts to restart the economy in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

But the EU’s ability to assuage the region’s feelings of vaccine abandonment will be crucial for keeping the bloc’s credibility in the region. And 2021 also promises to be a worthy sequel to the 2020 electoral nail-biters.

Read more the full outlook here:

EU enlargement in 2021: Moribund or revenant?

In the Western Balkans, where all EU applicant countries (bar Turkey) are located, the year ahead will be dominated by Europe’s quest for a vaccine and efforts to restart the economy in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. 


CAUCASUS. For the Caucasus the year will be dominated by the aftermath of the Nagorno-Karabakh war, with the biggest challenge being to get from Russian-brokered ceasefire to sustainable peace.

According to the Crisis Group, “the deal brokered by Moscow has ended the fighting but leaves the region short of a clear and stable peace” for which “humiliation cannot be a strong basis”. Efforts could potentially include broader international engagement and a turn back to the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group, which oversaw peace negotiations for the past three decades.

For Armenia, the political question remains whether Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan will stay in power after the loss to Azerbaijan.

Georgia held a parliamentary election in October and November but protests broke out after the first round and the opposition boycotted the second round.

Meanwhile, Georgia is at a political crossroads, too. After the contested elections left the country with politically fragmented, its EU ambitions are unabated. In early January, Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia said that one of the new parliament’s “top foreign policy goals” is “preparing to apply for full EU membership in 2024″, with the country preparing an annual action plan to prepare the country for the endeavour.

Meanwhile, billionaire leader of the Georgian Dream ruling party, Bidzina Ivanishvili, widely seen as the country’s most powerful man, announced he was quitting politics. Whether it is a temporary stepping down of the kind Ivanishvili promised in 2013, after which he made a political comeback in 2018, remains to be seen.

EASTERN PARTNERSHIP.  This year will also be a chance for the EU to win back trust lost with the Eastern Partnership. Last year, the European Commission presented a set of new EaP priorities, which were widely criticised, most importantly for being weak on political signalling towards the region.

The upcoming EU-Eastern Partnership summit is a chance for the EU to prove it wants to do more than just business-as-usual, or risk losing geopolitical relevance in EaP altogether.

Thirteen member states urged the European Commission to support the Eastern Partnership countries in their efforts to obtain affordable and fair access to the COVID-19 vaccines, according to a joint letter seen by EURACTIV.

However, not a single country from “Old Europe” joined, including the EU founding members, or Portugal, the rotating EU presidency holder. The push now comes after late last year it was the Western Balkans that struggled for access, producing strange effects.

CENTRAL ASIA. Besides economic recovery from the pandemic, the politics of transition will likely continue in the region, which faced elections in Kyrgyzstan (10 January) following a spurt of civil unrest last autumn and Kazakhstan (10 January) this weekend and in Turkmenistan members to a consultative body called the Khalk Maslahaty, will be elected (late March).



Europe’s everyday business is still stuck in lockdown reality, until further notice. We’ll keep you updated on all relevant EU foreign affairs news, as we kick off into the new year.

  • European Parliament trade committee hearing on EU-UK trade deal
    | Monday, 11 January 2021 | Brussels, Belgium
  • European Space Conference
    | Tue-Wed, 12-13 January 2021 | Brussels, Belgium
  • College of Commissioners presidency visit to Portugal
    | Thu-Fri, 14-15 January 2021 | Lisbon, Portugal

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