The European Union spent 2021 in the shadow of the fight against the epidemic, economic and political turmoil. In 2021, the European Union (EU) focused on issues such as the management of crises caused by unsuccessful policies in the fight against the new type of coronavirus (Covid-19), the acceleration of vaccination, efforts to strengthen defense autonomy and Transatlantic relations, refugee tension with Belarus, inflation, and increase in energy prices.
While the EU countries, which were declared the epicenter of the epidemic in a short time in 2020 imposed restrictions on the export of health products and closed their borders to each other, the EU institutions were criticized for their ineffectiveness. In the early days of 2021, the agenda of the EU was the creation of a vaccination certificate for use in travels throughout the Union to guarantee free movement in the Schengen area. However, in the first three months of the year, member states were divided on this issue. While tourism countries wanted to switch to the application to revive their economies in the summer months, some countries such as France and Germany did not look forward to the application due to the lack of clear information such as the protection period of the vaccine and the concern of “discrimination“.
By taking the first step in the EU vaccine certificate on March 17, the necessary legal regulation was prepared and the certificate became effective as of July 1. Until today, more than 60 countries, including Turkey in 5 continents have been included in the system.
Vaccine Agreements Accelerated in 2021
In the same period, the EU focused on the issue on the grounds of slow progress in vaccination processes and made many commercial agreements for the purchase of potential vaccines. In this context, the EU signed vaccine procurement contracts with many companies, especially BioNTech-Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Johnson&Johnson. EU including options 2.4 billion with BioNTech-Pfizer, 400 million with AstraZeneca, 300 million with Sanofi-GSK, 400 million with Johnson & Johnson, 405 million with CureVac, 460 million with Moderna, 200 million with Novavax, and 60 million with Valneva. contracted to receive millions of doses of vaccine.
After the aforementioned vaccines were approved for use, difficulties arose, especially in supply. In April, the EU side filed a lawsuit against AstraZeneca in the Brussels Court for failing to comply with the vaccine purchase agreement and delaying the supply. The parties accused each other of non-compliance with the contract for months. AstraZeneca’s settlement with the EU, which ordered and received a large number of vaccines from other manufacturers, reached September. With the mechanism that limited the export of the Covid-19 vaccine, which was put into practice at the end of January, the EU prevented the unauthorized sale of vaccines produced at the facilities of BioNTech-Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Sanofi-GSK, Johnson&Johnson, CureVac, and Moderna companies to other countries, with which the union signed a pre-purchase agreement. The sale of the vaccine outside the EU was only possible if the country of manufacture and the EU Commission allowed it. To obtain permission, companies had to deliver the amount of vaccine they had committed to supply to the EU. Having received enough vaccines from companies, the EU decided to abolish the export permit mechanism, which is put into practice after overcoming the problems experienced in the supply of vaccines, at the end of the year
On 19 January, the EU set a target for 70 per cent of adults in member states to have at least one dose of vaccine by summer, then extended the process to the end of summer. At the beginning of June, the number of vaccine doses administered in the EU exceeded 250 million, and on July 27, it was announced that the target of 70 per cent was reached. By the end of the year, 67.3 per cent of the entire population in the EU was fully vaccinated. In addition to BioNTech-Pfizer, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) allowed the use of vaccines produced by Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson&Johnson and Novavax companies in EU countries in 2021.
Transatlantic Alliance Strengthened
The EU welcomed the end of the Donald Trump era, which the USA faced on many issues at the beginning of the year. The EU Foreign Relations Council exchanged views on global, foreign and security policies with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken via video conference on February 22. The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, also invited US President Joe Biden to the summit held between the EU leaders on 25 March. “I have invited the President of the United States to attend our meeting to share his views on our future cooperation,” Michel said. It’s time to rebuild our transatlantic alliance.” had used the words. Biden, thus, connected to the EU Leaders’ Summit by video conference two months after he took the presidency and expressed his commitment to the revitalization of relations between the EU and the USA. At the EU-USA Summit held on June 15, the two actors agreed on a common stance on the issues of Covid-19, global economic recovery, environment, growth, trade, global and regional security, including consultation on the approach to China, unity against Russia’s destabilizing behavior.
Afghanistan and AUKUS Crises
The idea of ”autonomous military power“, which has been on the agenda for a long time in the Union due to the EU’s inability to act independently from NATO and the USA in the fields of defense and security, became more controversial in 2021. The EU started to prepare the operational defense guide called “Strategic Compass” in June 2020, and threat analyzes were made first. The issue was first addressed in the 2021 period at the meeting of EU leaders on defense and security on February 26. It was noteworthy that NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg also attended the meeting. EU leaders also frequently stated that the Strategic Compass “is not an alternative to NATO” and “will mean sharing the burden of the United States“.
After the USA, NATO withdrew from Afghanistan and France was disabled in the submarine agreement by the USA and England, the AUKUS crisis, and the “hybrid” threat from the “Belarusian administration” in the middle of the year, once again attracted attention within the EU. Strategic Compass turned to. The Strategic Compass, which includes elements such as a rapid deployment force that can reach up to 5 thousand people, is planned to take its final form at the EU Leaders’ Summit in February 2022.
Tensions Rise with Russia
2021, EU-Russia relations have reached the level of “crossroads“, as described by Josep Borrell, EU High Policy on Foreign Relations and Security, on 7 February. At the beginning of the year, the EU called on Russia for the immediate release of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, who was detained in Moscow on his return from Germany. The deportation of 3 diplomats from EU countries during Borrell’s visit to Moscow, disagreements on many issues such as Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Syria, and Libya, resulted in a sanction decision on Russia at the meeting of the EU Foreign Ministers on February 22, with the participation of Blinken.
While on April 19, the EU gave a message of full solidarity with Ukraine against Russia due to the military activity and build-up of the Russian Army in the Ukraine border and Crimea, the increase in Russia’s military concentration near the Ukrainian border towards the end of the year caused the EU’s stance to harden. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen threatened on 7 December that they would impose harsh sanctions on Ukraine if Russia took aggressive action against Ukraine, while on 13 December EU High Representative Josep Borrell said, “All EU ministers were very clear about this today. Any aggression against Ukraine will have political consequences and a high economic cost for Russia.” gave your message.
Push-backs had reactions
The news that some EU countries, especially Greece, pushed asylum seekers back from their borders, was widely covered in many international media in 2020 and 2021. The EU’s anti-corruption office opened an investigation into the Union’s Border Protection Agency, Frontex, on 12 January. At the beginning of March, the EU Commission stated that after Greece pushed back a large number of asylum seekers to Turkey, EU countries should act in line with European values and respect fundamental rights in such cases. Finally, in October 2021, media organizations such as the German Spiegel magazine, the Monitor program of the German First Television Channel ARD, the French newspaper Liberation, the Serbian newspaper Novosti and the RTL Croatia Lighthouse Report, SRF Rundschau and the ARD Vienna office, have been in Croatia and Greece for more than 8 months. published his extensive research.
Push-backs and violence against asylum seekers were documented in these reports and had widespread resonance. On the news presented with evidence such as images and statements, the EU Commission said last week that the news was “very worrying“. EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson urged Greece to investigate reports of illegal push-backs. Johansson admitted in July that Greece was pushing asylum seekers back from the sea to Turkey illegally, saying that this was a “violation of basic European values“. Johansson also stated that the Greek government should stop the illegal deportation of immigrants coming to its borders.
The Refugee Crisis with Belarus
The EU was imposing sanctions on Belarus because the elections held in August 2020 were rigged and the opposition was put under pressure. The tension that started after the Ryanair plane going from Greece to Lithuania made an emergency landing while it was in the Belarusian airspace on May 23, claiming that there was a bomb threat, and the EU condemned the development at the EU Leaders Summit held the day after the incident, and on June 4th. It resulted in the decision to ban Belarusian airlines from using European airspace and airports in EU countries. On June 21, the sanctions included a large number of state officials and businessmen, as well as President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s son.
In the last months of the year, the EU accused the Belarusian administration of bringing immigrants from countries such as Iraq to the borders of EU countries Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, “using irregular migration as a tool and trying to destabilize the Union in this way“. In November, the EU made moves to stop migrants in origin countries and contacted many countries for this purpose. December 2 The EU, which included individuals and organizations that organize or contribute to activities that facilitate illegal transitions to EU countries neighboring Belarus, on the sanction list, encouraged the return of thousands of Iraqis to their country.
Rule of Law Debate with Hungary and Poland
Disputes arose between the EU and Poland in 2021 over issues such as judicial independence, the rule of law and whether national laws were above EU law. Apart from Poland’s disciplinary mechanism for judges, the decision of the Polish Constitutional Court on September 8 that “national law takes precedence over EU law in some areas” was the subject of debate. The Polish government defended the decision, while the EU institutions stated that EU law was superior to national law. On 20 July, the Commission stated that democratic standards such as the independence of the judiciary were being eroded in Poland and Hungary, and stated that it would “not hesitate to use its powers” if these countries did not rectify the situation. On 27 October, the EU Court of Justice ordered Poland to pay a fine of 1m euros per day, while the EU did not approve the funds to be given to Poland. On 16 November, the EU Court of Justice ruled that Hungary’s laws, which allow the rejection of asylum applications from third countries deemed “safe” and impose criminal sanctions on those who assist with their asylum applications, violated EU law.
Public Debt Raised
The ratio of public debt to gross domestic product (GDP) in EU countries increased rapidly in 2021 due to the epidemic measures. According to EU rules, under normal circumstances, the public debt of the member states should not exceed 60 per cent of their GDP. EU member states decided to suspend the rules last year due to the epidemic and increased their public expenditures. This situation continued in 2021 as well. More than a yard of EU member states exceeded the 60 per cent public debt ratio set in the criteria. According to the latest data, the ratio of public debt to GDP is 207.2 per cent in Greece, 156.3 per cent in Italy, 135.4 per cent in Portugal, 122.8 per cent in Spain, 114.6 per cent in France and Belgium. found 113.7 per cent
Brexit Debates Continue
Disputes continued between the EU and the UK, which left the EU, on important Brexit-related issues such as Northern Ireland and fisheries. The Northern Ireland Protocol, signed as part of the Brexit Secession Agreement, regulated trade relations between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member. According to the protocol, despite Brexit, Northern Ireland remains subject to EU customs rules. Due to EU rules, it meant the end of direct shipment of some products to the Single Market, hence Northern Ireland, from a country that is no longer a member of the EU, such as the UK. In particular, the fact that food products and medicines such as sausage, salami and ground meat could not go from the UK to Northern Ireland, causing great discomfort on the British side. London asked the EU to change the Irish protocol. The parties are still negotiating to resolve these issues.
The United Kingdom also experienced fisheries-related problems with France due to Brexit. In particular, the administration of Jersey Island of England asked French fishing boats who wanted to continue fishing in their territorial waters to provide evidence of their past activities. This situation caused tension between England and France. In the negotiations between France and England in the dispute regarding fishing rights and quotas, a consensus could not be reached that satisfied both sides. Paris has announced that it will implement retaliatory measures if there is no solution to the fisheries crisis. However, the UK has not allowed the number of boats requested by France.
Inflation at its Peak in Recent Years
The increase in inflation continued in September, October and November. Inflation in the Eurozone, which consists of EU countries that use the Euro currency, broke a record in November. In the Eurozone, annual inflation in November reached its highest level in 25 years at 4.9 per cent. In this period, inflation was 6 per cent in Germany, 3.4 per cent in France, 5.5 per cent in Spain, 3.9 per cent in Italy, 5.9 per cent in the Netherlands and 7.1 per cent in Belgium. The rapid rise in inflation and the rise in general prices began to disturb the Europeans.
In Europe, especially in the autumn months, the prices of energy products such as natural gas and electricity rose rapidly. This situation disturbed consumers who faced high bills during the winter months. EU countries, which import 90 per cent of their natural gas needs, tried to determine a common stance on the measures to be taken on energy. A group of countries led by France, Spain and Italy demanded that the EU natural gas and electricity markets are updated and resource prices in electricity generation unbundled.
Countries such as Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, which expect energy prices to return to average levels next year, opposed the revision of the EU electricity market against rising energy prices. Around 10 countries, again led by France, demanded that nuclear power plants be included in the EU sustainable and green financial investment classification. A group of countries, including Poland and Hungary, blamed the rise in energy prices for the policies of the Green Deal, which aims to achieve the EU’s climate-friendly transformation.
What was discussed at EU Summit?
EU leaders have once again agreed on a set of conclusions on the external dimension of migration — because the internal dimension (the movement of migrants inside the bloc) remains too divisive to be tackled. The conclusions talk once more about things such as speeding up the returns of people who do not have the right to stay in the EU while condemning instrumentalization of “migrants for political purposes” a clear reference to Belarus. And, according to an EU official familiar with the discussion, inside the room Commission, President Ursula von der Leyen reiterated that the EU budget will not fund border walls — a remark that Hungary’s Viktor Orbán didn’t enjoy. Some diplomats hope are that the alliance between France’s Emmanuel Macron and Italy’s Mario Draghi won’t just produce a common proposal to reform the EU Stability and Growth Pact with the blessing of the new German government (as speculated in Italian media) but also an agreement on the reform of asylum across the EU. Yet the future of both leaders is uncertain. For Draghi, it could be his last European Council (if he’s elected president of the republic next month). And, assuming he runs for another term, Macron will face voters once again in France’s presidential election next April.
The last two years have undoubtedly been most challenging for the European Union’s economic system, as the pandemic threatened growth and put at risk millions of jobs. While the dark cloud of Covid-19 remains a substantial threat, other political issues may prove to be even more daunting in 2022.
Following the departure of Angela Merkel from the political scene, the EU needs to show that it still harbours leaders with the qualities required to steer the Union away from the negative political trends that are evolving and that could threaten the economic recovery. Perhaps the most significant threat is the resurgence of anti-establishment sentiment in parts of the Union. Weakened economies, public dissatisfaction with mainstream political parties and a probable rise in immigration could strengthen populist parties of the extreme right and left in pursuit of their agendas.
While French President Emmanuel Macron stands a good chance of being re-elected, Eastern European countries like Poland and Bulgaria are still vulnerable to political crises in 2022. Still, the new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has made it clear that his government will be less indulgent when it comes to moves by the nationalist rulers of Poland and Hungary. The commitment to prevent these countries from undermining the judiciary’s independence, limiting media freedom and civil rights, and rejecting the primacy of EU law over national legislation should help the European Commission project a united front in defence of EU values.
Deepening systemic shifts in the geopolitical system undermine the solidity of the rules-based international order as the US commitment to uphold it weakens. The rising tensions over the Ukraine and Taiwan, and the adversarial international relations between Russia, China and the US could fuel more political uncertainty that would affect the global economic recovery. Despite these worrying prospects, some positive trends give rise to optimism. The massive investment planned for the EU recovery should help reduce the risk of political turbulence in some member states. The Commission and the European Council are likely to define new fiscal rules to replace the outdated Stability and Growth Pact measures suspended in 2020 because of the pandemic.
The consolidation of Franco-Italian relations might provide the leadership that the Union needs to deliver the economic growth envisaged in the Next Generation EU recovery plan. The new German coalition is also likely to support initiatives to boost public investment to modernise the creaking transport, telecoms and energy networks and meet the ambitious goals to fight climate change. The unresolved issues following a hastily agreed Brexit agreement need to be addressed urgently to ensure that peace in Northern Ireland persists. Boris Johnson needs a solution to that problem to ease some of the pressures he is facing from his party.
The relations between the EU and Britain are even more strained than many had expected during the prolonged Brexit debate. Both sides now need to put the frustrating experience of dealing with the Northern Ireland trade issue behind them. France takes over the rotating EU Council presidency in the first half of 2022. There is hope that it will succeed in making the motto it adopted – “Recovery, power, and belonging” a reality .Economic recovery will undoubtedly be the holy grail of all member states in 2022. Strong second and third goals will be a respected EU in the geopolitical sphere and an enhanced sense of belonging for all EU citizens.