What to Watch in 2019

What to Watch in 2019


One year ago people were expecting 2018 to be a second “year of the woman” – the first having followed Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations against Clarence Thomas during his U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1991. On this account 2018 met expectations. The momentum of the #metoo movement continued to build in 2018 and it became an international phenomenon: in Brussels a complaint blog was launched for sexual harassment in the EU corridors; in India a junior foreign minister resigned after 20 women accused him of sexual harassment; in Egypt a former presidential candidate also resigned and a prominent Deutsche Welle Arabia journalist's firing ignited a big #metoo wave.

In politics the year also lived up to its name, at least on one side of the political spectrum. More than 250 women were on the ballot in the U.S. midterm elections and a record 126 are in the new Congress, the biggest jump since the 1990s. In governorships and state houses too, women made gains. However, this time the shift was only on the side of the Democrats, the share of female Republicans actually fell. Conservatives in Germany, in contrast, replaced one woman with another at the helm, and in Ethiopia, a reformist prime minister has a 50/50 cabinet and appointed the first woman to head the Supreme Court.

"It is a year of big anniversaries: 30 years from the fall of the Berlin Wall and 70 years of NATO."

In contrast, hopes that France’s dynamic new leader, Emmanuel Macron, might make big things happen in Europe were disappointed, not least because collaboration from Germany never arrived. After a months-long government-building process, internal rivalries and spats sapped Berlin of any EU-reform energy it might have had. And then there was the Brexit negotiation drama. So, 2018 ends with Macron buckling on his ambitious domestic reforms in response to protests and the EU still not having reached a deal on migration, Germany looking no more dynamic, and the EU still not having reached a deal on migration, still divided and standing on weak eurozone footing. But then again, the EU once again survived a slew of challenges to greet another year.

Where does that leave us for 2019? It is a year of big anniversaries: 30 years from the fall of the Berlin Wall and 70 years of NATO. It will (probably) be the year of Brexit, again the year of Europe in crisis, the year of more strife in Washington and more chaos created by it, and of course expect Russia and China to continue to intimidate neighbors and try transatlantic strength and cooperation. From Poland to Yemen, there will be a lot to watch in 2019 – keep reading to see what GMF experts will be paying attention to in the new year.

— Rachel Tausendfreund, Editorial Director

Brexit Will Be an Abrupt Shock to Both the United Kingdom and the EU

The United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union will be the epoch-making event of 2019 – if it actually takes place, that is. At the time of writing, the country is plunged in one of the worst crises of its history, stuck in a tug of war between a disempowered parliament, in which there is no majority for any solution to implement the Brexit referendum result and the government that continues to push the withdrawal deal reached with the other members of the union in November. All scenarios are possible: crashing out of the EU without an agreement, fresh elections (which should force a postponement of the decision), a second referendum, an eventual approval of Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal, or even remaining in the EU.

An exhausted Brussels awaits. The whole process has shown remarkable unity in the rest of the EU, which has given it a new sense of confidence that was much needed after a decade of moving from crisis to crisis. But Brexit will damage the EU profoundly. It will be the first episode of disintegration, of moving backward in a process that hitherto was seen as irreversible – the end of the “ever closer union” logic.

— Rosa Balfour, Senior Transatlantic Fellow, Europe Program

Crucial Elections for Poland

The 2019 parliamentary elections in Poland will decide its place within the EU. In 2015, the Law and Justice party (PiS) won an outright majority, allowing it to govern without a parliamentary coalition partner (the first time this happened in the country since 1989). The elections in the fall of 2019 are unlikely to produce such a decisive result for either PiS or the opposition Civic Platform (PO). A recent poll had support for PiS at 38 percent and for Civic Platform 31 percent. The recent local elections, in which PO allied with Nowoczesna won in big cities while PiS dominated the countryside, have shown that any outcome is possible.

If the entire opposition unites, it could count on 50 percent of the vote and a parliamentary majority. A victory by the opposition would mean a re-prioritization of relations with other EU member states and a reversal of many of the controversial changes in the judiciary implemented over the last three years. In contrast, a PiS second term will bring more of the same distanced European policy, and more of the type of domestic changes that have earned Poland censure from the EU. One way or another, the country’s position within the union hangs in balance.

— Michal Baranowski, Director, Warsaw Office

U.S.-EU Trade Relations – Slightly Better, or Much Worse?

Just two years ago, the United States and the European Union were negotiating an ambitious free trade agreement, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which would have been the first congressionally ratified treaty between them. That was then. Now, the United States has whacked the EU with 25 percent duties on $6 billion of steel and aluminum exports to protect U.S. “national security.” The EU has retaliated against $4 billion of U.S. exports and launched a World Trade Organization case against the national security justification. Europe wonders whether President Donald Trump will use national security again as a pretext to place further punitive tariffs on $60 billion of EU auto and auto-parts exports.

EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and President Trump declared a cease-fire in July, but the U.S. administration believes the EU remains recalcitrant, especially about opening its agricultural market. The U.S. Commerce Department report on whether the auto industry should be protected as a matter of national security is due in early 2019. If the United States strikes at European auto exports, tensions will rise. If wiser heads prevail, the two sides will instead unite to work on the bigger problem facing the global economy – China’s industrial subsidies and technology theft.

— Peter Chase, Senior Fellow, Brussels Office

Will U.S. Foreign Policy Prioritize Democracy and Human Rights?

One of President Donald Trump’s sharpest breaks with his predecessors has been his abandonment of democracy and human rights as a priority of U.S. foreign policy. Yet the killing of Jamal Khashoggi provoked an uproar and action in Congress, with members of both parties eager to make clear that human rights must not be overlooked even when strategic interests are at play.

Ironically, it may be a great-power competition that provides an opening for a resurgence of democracy and human rights in U.S. foreign policy. Lecturing Iran’s regime about its abuses while condoning Saudi Arabia’s domestic repression or its war in Yemen rings hollow and undermines broader U.S. goals. In Asia, the dangers of China's rise are evident in its imprisonment of one million Uighurs in concentration camps in Xinjiang.

The alternative it offers, along with its democratic allies, is perhaps the greatest weapon the United States can present in the emerging great power competitions of the 21st century. Strategic reality may pull the Trump administration toward defending human rights over the course of 2019, whether the president likes it or not.

— Jamie Fly, Senior Fellow and Director, Asia and Future of Geopolitics Programs

Expect Russian Escalation in Eastern Europe

Russia has systematically undermined regional security in Eastern Europe for years; expect even worse in 2019. A potent mix of factors will create pressure and opportunity for it to step up aggression against its neighbors. 

The first is the need of President Vladimir Putin’s regime to bolster its battered domestic standing. The Russian leader has seen his ratings plummet over the last year, as enthusiasm among ordinary Russians over the “return” of Crimea has worn off while their material situation keeps worsening.

Second, the Kremlin has noted that the transatlantic and European communities have become more divided. These fissures will only deepen in 2019 and could paralyze the West, which Russia will consider exploiting. 

Finally, democratic Ukraine will hold presidential and parliamentary ballots next year, while in autocratic Belarus rumor has it that the elections will be brought forward from 2020 to 2019. This opens opportunities for Russian interference, whether openly to cripple Ukraine’s democratic experiment or more covertly to rein in Belarus’s unruly strongman, Alexander Lukashenko.

— Joerg Forbrig, Senior Transatlantic Fellow for Central and Eastern Europe

A Defining Year for the EU

This year is going to be a big and hyperactive one for the EU. The European Parliament elections in May will trigger the appointments of various EU leadership positions from the president of the European Commission to the quasi EU foreign minister, aka the high representative for foreign affairs and security policy.

The two biggest traditional party groups – the European People’s Party on the right and the Alliance of Socialist and Democrats on the left – might no longer be so strongly represented. Many will also watch to see whether the movement of France’s President Emmanuel Macron, En Marche, will join the liberal party group. There are concerns that candidates from populist parties will win a high number of seats or get commissioner positions. The negotiations over the leadership positions, which member state gets what commissioner portfolios and the related hearings in the parliament will be more pertinent than ever. And we will see what it means to be an EU without the United Kingdom.

The year will be more than one of institutional transition; it will be defining for the future significance of the EU. Choices around issues such as migration will be crucial, as will be confrontations over European values such as democracy, the rule of law, and human rights.

— Corinna Horst, Senior Fellow and Deputy Director, Brussels Office

More Russian Build-Up and Provocations Around the Black Sea

In 2019, Russia will continue its militarization of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. It wants to add 50 military and patrol ships to its Azov fleet and to add at least one modernized large missile boat and 17 new warships to its Black Sea fleet, 12 of which will support nuclear-capable missiles. We should also expect further incidents with Ukrainian ships in the Sea of Azov and in the Kerch Strait.

Russia needs to control the strait and the Azov Sea for strategic and practical reasons. As in the past five years, NATO’s response in the Black Sea will be limited by the divergent interests and approaches of the littoral states, and by the reactions of alliance members to the complicated Ukrainian domestic politics. These factors and the strict regulations of the 1936 Montreux Convention that gives Turkey control of the Bosporus Straits and the Dardanelles and limits the transit of foreign warships will continue to work in Russia’s favor in the new year, and it will continue its military build-up. 

— Alina Inayeh, Director, Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation

Will We Finally See an End to the War in Yemen?

In the Middle East, the overwhelming imperative for 2019 is ending the war in Yemen – the most urgent humanitarian catastrophe and the worst famine in a century, in which an estimated 85,000 children have starved to death since 2015.

The future of the military campaign in Yemen depends mostly on the Saudi-led coalition. The controversy over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has managed what heart-wrenching pictures of starving Yemeni children had not: to open Western eyes to the war as a power-hungry young prince’s senseless rampage no-one in the West now wants to be linked to. Pressure has mounted on governments to stop arms sales that fuel the conflict. The U.S. Congress has just voted to end the critical logistical support to the Yemen campaign. December also brought a UN-negotiated ceasefire for the port of Hodeidah – the country’s main lifeline for food and aid. Whether this momentum will suffice to build up international pressure on Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to order a withdrawal from Yemen following a negotiated settlement will be the issue to watch in the early months of the new year.

— Kristina Kausch, Senior Resident Fellow, Mediterranean Program

NATO’s 70th Anniversary Amid Discord

In April 2019, NATO plans to convene a celebratory summit in Washington at the level of foreign ministers. It may prove an uneasy gathering. The logic of the celebration is straightforward: 70 years since the founding, successive waves of enlargement, and three decades of post-Cold War alliance management.

Against a backdrop of anxiety in the transatlantic relationship, on issues ranging from trade to climate to Iran to arms control, the Washington meeting could prove a flashpoint for accumulated policy differences. Leaders will be keen to avoid a repeat of the embarrassing experiences of recent G-8 and NATO summits. Indeed, this is probably one reason for convening in April at the level of foreign ministers rather than heads of state. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s recent speech in Brussels largely spared the alliance even as other international institutions came in for heavy criticism. But how long can NATO remain unaffected by mounting discord on other fronts?

— Ian Lesser, Vice President, and Executive Director, Brussels Office

Europe Will Need to Navigate Chinese-U.S. Tensions Better

In 2019 Europe will have to find policies suited to the increasingly antagonistic atmosphere between China and the United States. It has become obvious that the confrontation between the two countries goes far beyond the trade realm, and the U.S. conversation on China is now about systemic confrontation. To avoid falling back into Cold War-style mechanisms, Europe needs a more convincing answer than its current attempt to stay neutral.

There is a growing awareness in virtually all European capitals that a re-assessment of their relationship with China is warranted, yet no joint position has emerged. If forced to choose sides between China and the United States, it is not entirely clear what the response of European governments and companies would be. This could easily produce the next crisis in European unity. Europe’s response to China’s trade practices as well as to the situation in Xinjiang, its recent “hostage diplomacy” towards Canada, and military tensions over Taiwan and the South China Sea will be decisive themes for the next transatlantic year. A clearer, more honest understanding and communication of Europe’s own interests in these matters would be welcome.

— Janka Oertel, Transatlantic Fellow, Asia Program

The Clock Ticks in the U.S.-Chinese Trade War

The most important issue to watch in 2019 is doubtless the trade war between the United States and China. The two countries need to reach an agreement by March 1 or risk a further escalation of the conflict. The United States has temporarily suspended the increase of tariffs on Chinese goods during this period but has vowed to raise the rate from 10 to 25 percent if talks fail. China is expected to retaliate in such a case, which in turn will likely lead to a new round of tariffs on Chinese exports to the United States as President Donald Trump has pledged to impose 25 percent tariffs on the remaining $257 billion of Chinese imports.

The prospects of reaching a deal on time look daunting. U.S. and Chinese negotiators have effectively only two months now to resolve a host of contentious trade issues such as market access, subsidies, industrial policy, intellectual property protection, and trade imbalances.

— Minxin Pei, Non-Resident Senior Fellow, Asia Program

New Digital Manipulation Technologies Will Escalate Disinformation Campaigns

In 2019, Europe faces a full slate of elections, Canada holds parliamentary elections, and the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign kicks off in earnest. The technological tools authoritarian regimes use to interfere in democracies are advancing rapidly. And yet, policymakers and legislators are largely consumed by yesterday’s problems, like the use of bots on open social media platforms. Digital manipulation in 2019 will differ from information operations waged against transatlantic countries over the past several years. “Deep fake” technology – that is, doctoring of audio and video clips that make them difficult to identify as inauthentic – as well as machine learning, the explosion of closed, encrypted chat platforms, and improvements in bot sophistication will make disinformation easier to amplify and more difficult to detect and counter.

Leaving the tech companies alone to address emerging developments in computational propaganda and authoritarian interference is no longer an option. Cliché as it may sound, governments, civil society, and the private sector all have a stake in greater collaboration. Hopefully, this will start to happen in 2019.

— David Salvo, Deputy Director, Alliance for Securing Democracy

How Is Germany’s Most Likely Next Chancellor Positioning Herself Vis-à-Vis Russia and China?

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chosen successor, has won the race for leadership in the Christian Democratic Union and became a clear frontrunner for the chancellery. According to the latest polls, she is likely to succeed Merkel after the next elections in 2021, or earlier if Merkel decides to resign.

Toward the West, Kramp-Karrenbauer is likely to stay in the German mainstream, as Merkel did and does. But would she follow Merkel’s robust course toward Russia? And how does she view the systemic competition with China?

Judging by her public remarks to date, Kramp-Karrenbauer is more hawkish than Merkel when it comes to the autocratic challenges to the liberal order from Russia and China. But this posture is untested. A chancellor has to navigate a course between a lot of forces, from business interests to views of key partner countries to domestic coalition dynamics. It will be interesting to watch how her thinking about Russia and China is going to evolve in 2019.

— Ulrich Speck, Senior Visiting Fellow, Europe Program

Conflict or Compromise over Turkey’s Missile Defense Deal?

Turkey’s ongoing plan to acquire the S-400 missile defense system from Russia will test its already tense relationship with the United States once again in 2019. Western governments have consistently called on it to reverse course, but Turkish officials say it is a done deal. More recently U.S. officials have been warning that Turkey could be sanctioned and expelled from the F-35 program if it takes delivery of the S-400 systems. The U.S. position is based on the concern that Turkey’s using S-400s and F-35s at the same time could give Russia insights into the vulnerabilities of NATO’s most advanced military aircraft.

One scenario, which has become plausible after the State Department’s notification to the Congress of a proposal to sell Patriot missile system to Turkey, is that Turkey could cancel the S-400 deal in return for a U.S. commitment to sell Patriot systems on favorable terms with an element of technology transfer. Either way, the clock is ticking, as Russia is expected to deliver the S-400s in the summer of 2019.

— Özgür Ünlühisarcıklı, Director, Ankara Office




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