8 January 2018 - World news for this week

As one tends to do at the start of the year, we will attempt to provide a geopolitical horoscope… 

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2018: the world to come

The year that has just ended brought with it a number of major events that have influenced and will keep affecting the international geopolitical picture. This being the case, it makes sense to ask oneself, given the future international events on the agenda, what kind of 2018 we can expect.

On the Old Continent, Germany, which has always played a major role, will be a major focus of attention during the first months of 2018. Since 24 September 2017 (when its general elections took place), there have been many attempts to reach a compromise over the new government, and only after extensive negotiations has Chancellor Merkel – on her fourth term – managed to secure some kind of opening by the Social Democrats which could lead to a revised version of the Grand Coalition. This at present would seem to be the most likely outcome, while we await the exploratory discussions scheduled to take place between 7 and 12 January, though one can't yet rule out different developments which may include a minority government or new elections in the spring.

Once again in a European perspective, it's certain that Brexit – one of the main issues of 2017 – will retain its central role during the coming year. Last December, Brussels and London finally reached an agreement on the first phase of the negotiations and, thanks to the official approval by the European Council, 2018 will kick off with the start of the works on the second phase. This second round of negotiations could be very thorny for two main reasons: 1) the first round of the divorce proceedings has left a number of rather insidious issues still hanging in the balance, including the border with Ireland and the exit from the Custom's Union; 2) by the autumn there must be a final agreement, which will then have to be ratified by all Member States. Considering the difficulties that have already come to light, it's reasonable to believe that at least until next autumn one can expect developments and surprises on a daily basis. London, however, is not the only one involved in divorce matters.

Spain, after the (unconstitutional) referendum on independence called by the Catalan government, has experienced very tense moments and ended  its year by witnessing the victory of the separatist front in a new round of regional Catalan elections. With an unprecedented 82% turnout, and by securing 70 seats out of 135, the independent factions obtained a very significant result. The Spanish President Mariano Rajoy, who had called the region to the polls in the hope of settling matters, is now forced to embark in negotiations with the new regional government. But the whole matter is rather tricky, seeing as Puigdemont, the main candidate for the Catalan presidency, is still "in voluntary exile" in Belgium. If he sets foot back on Spanish soil he will be arrested. His vice-president, Oriol Junqueras, the head of the second independentist faction, is in jail in Madrid along with two new members of the regional assembly. As things stand, it would seem very unlikely that they will be able to take their seat in Parliament and take part in the election of the President. The constituent meeting of the Catalan assembly is scheduled to take place on 23 January; the first round of the presidential elections is on the 10th of February. But if by April it has not been possible to elect a new president, the assembly will be automatically dissolved and new elections held at the end of May. The Catalan crisis is therefore still on a very short fuse. As for electoral appointments that have already been scheduled, the spring will be a very busy time.

Italy will head for the polling stations on March 4, after the approval of an electoral law that many find unacceptable. According to Pietro Vento – head of the Demopolis survey institute – "with the new electoral law the weight of the coalitions will have a very great impact in the various constituencies for the allocation of the majority seats. The centre-right parties should overall obtain something in the order of 36%, topping the 5 Star Movement which, as usual, is running on its own. At present, with just 28%, the left wing coalition comprised of the DP and it's lesser allies would seem to be in trouble: the far left is rated at 7%. With this Rosatellum electoral system, all the political factions would be a long way off having sufficient numbers to form a new government after the elections. This is a state of play that public opinion seems to be very aware of: only 33% of citizens believes that the elections in March will produce a winner".

Then comes Russia, where voting will take place in March 18. Here one will most likely witness another peremptory victory by president Vladimir Putin. He has managed to retain a vast level of consensus and still has his electorate believing that  strong leadership and political continuity are the best way to solve the Russian Federation's problems.

In April it will be Hungary's turn, once again very affected by the issue of political continuity, in addition to the reactions of the European Union. The combination of illiberalism and outspoken pro-Russian feeling proclaimed by the political faction led by Victor Orban makes the Magyar situation utterly unique, and it will in all likelihood continue to adopt an extremely euro-sceptic position.

Important elections will also be held in the American continent in 2018: Paraguay (April), Colombia (May), Mexico (July), Brazil and Venezuela (October) will all head for the polls during the coming year, which will be rounded off by the mid-term elections in the United States (6 November), where voters, two years in to the Trump Presidency, will get a chance to make their feelings known about his performance so far. 

On the Asian continent there will be elections in Pakistan (June) and Cambodia (July). There will also be plenty of attention paid to North Korea, seeing as the North Korean threat is becoming more tangible every day. 

As for the countries in the North Africa, we will probably get to see al-Sisi standing for election once more in Egypt in March and possibly new elections in Libya, the third since the revolution against Gaddafi in 2011, but also the most uncertain, given the political fragmentation in the country. 

In the Middle East, new political elections are supposed to be held in Iraq in May, where prime minister al-Abadi, who defeated Islamic State and has effectively cancelled the referendum on independence called by Kurdistan, should manage to hold on to his majority. For the United States, which by 2018 will have been in Iraq for fifteen years, al-Abadi retaining power would seem the best way to constrain Iran. Plus, on May 6Lebanon will hold its first general elections since 2009, almost a decade later. The vote could transform the fate of a country that is heavily affected by the clash between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It goes without saying that the return of violence in the Middle East, which marked 2017, could flow on into the new year. At the start of 2018, Yemen is still in the throes of a serious humanitarian crisis, Syria is still torn by a furious war that is now in its seventh year, while tension is once again riding high in Israel and Palestine and Iran is currently having to deal with an unexpected wave of civil protests. And seeing as the many proxy conflicts taking place in the region are also affected by broader geopolitical contexts, it's only reasonable to assume that not all the issues will be resolved in one short year. 

After all, the new and very brash foreign policy inaugurated by the young prince Bin Salman in Saudi Arabia could lead to a further destabilisation of a region that is already extremely polarised. 

EUROPEAN UNION - The EU Commission versus Poland

In recent weeks, Poland has taken centre stage for at least two reasons: not only has there been a change in prime minister, but at the end of December, the European Commission has presented a proposal to the EU Council that it adopt a decision under article 7 of the Treaties as a result of "growing and systemic violations of the Rule of Law". The bone of contention is the recent justice reform approved in Poland, that greatly reduces the independence of the judiciary powers by making judges subject to political approval. The appointment in December of the former Finance Minister Matesz Morawiecki as the new Prime Minister, after the resignation of the former Prime Minister Beate Szydlo, of the ultra-nationalist Law and Justice party, led one to believe that the Polish government was shifting its emphasis. After all, the 49 year-old former banker (President of Bank Zachodni of the Santander Group from 2007 to 2015) is a rather well-known figure who is responsible for introducing a number of important welfare measures and was economic advisor to Donald Tusk. so one could expect a more moderate, diplomatic and international approach to the one favoured by his predecessor. This said,  what Morawiecki will manage to achieve will very much depend on how much leeway he will be granted by the leader of the Law and Justice Party Aleksander Kaczynski. It's worth recalling that both Szydlo and Morawiecki belong to the party led by Kaczynsky; and the first moves made by the new Prime Minister would not seem to indicate that improvements in relations between Warsaw and Brussels top his agenda. This week, the new Polish Prime Minister made his his first official visit when he met up with his Hungarian counterpart Victor Orban. The two reiterated their unconditionally refusal to accept the migratory quotas put forward by the EU, as well as the sanctions that the Polish government is now facing. The reference is to the sanctions that could be levied against Poland as a result of the implementation of article 7 of the Treaties, which in its worst form leads to a reduction of subsidies and the suspension of voting rights within the Council. With the new justice reform, which was recently approved by the Polish government, the Minister for Justice would have the power to appoint or remove the presidents of all courts without any checks and balances. This raises an issue of compatibility with European law. Faced with what Brussels views as growing and systematic violations of the principles and rights of the rule of law and the European treaties, the drastic decision could be postponed no longer. If at least 22 member states out of 28 approve the condemnation of the claimed violations (as is likely to happen), then the Commission may implement the procedure. At this point things could get a little tricky for the leader of the Law and Justice party Kaczynski, the new prime minister Morawiecki and their Eastern European Union allies. 

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