As we are counting the final days of 2020, one can only say that it has been a wild ride. The COVID-19 pandemic hit us at an unprecedented pace and has claimed the lives of almost 2 million people. However, these statistics are but a rough estimate and numbers cannot capture the immense suffering that many had to endure over the past year.
Initially, I was planning on writing a year’s overview, something that every self-respecting magazine would do. Yet, as December was approaching I could not get myself to compile a list of all the major events of 2020. After all, where should one even begin? All the headlines from earlier this year feel like a lifetime ago. 2020, the beginning of a new decade, will for sure be one for the books – though I am reluctant to resort to historical exceptionalism as each era has its peculiarities.
Instead, I want to take you to the future. In the spirit of 20-things-I-learned-in-my-20s, let us assemble an overview of 21 developments that we should keep an eye on in the next year. How nice would it be, especially after such a bumpy start of the decade, to pretend that one sidereal year can serve as the ultimate cut-off point? In reality, many developments that sprung up in 2020 will continue to impact our lives in the next 365 days. Admittedly, 2021 may not seem that promising, yet there is enough reason to not fall down a spiral of despair.
1. The Brexit Deal
At the eleventh hour, the United Kingdom and the European Union reached a deal. As is to be expected in a war of giants, both parties suffered substantial losses. The flexible nature of the mutual obligations as set out in the Brexit deal do leave quite some space to manoeuvre. The current deal forms the skeleton but many more negotiations and practical stumbling blocks will follow. Some have already considered the possibility of a softer Brexit when Labour wins the elections. Due to the flexible obligations set out in the deal, it is in theory possible to turn the tide so that the hard Brexit can perhaps be alleviated.
2. COVID-19 vaccines
According to the WHO, more than 50 vaccines are in the trial stage of production. Many states in Western Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East have rolled out the COVID vaccine. There are multiple caveats to consider. First, it is a huge logistical challenge to inoculate everyone as fast as possible. Especially since both the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccine require two shots. Secondly, many people are unsure of whether they want to take the vaccine and governments have to decide whether mandatory vaccination is ethical and legal. Furthermore, most African states have not started vaccinating their citizens. Though Morocco has bought a substantial amount of vaccines, the power disparities are once again evident. Rich nations representing 14% of the world population, bought 53% per cent all of the promising vaccines. Canada for example has bought enough vaccines to inject its entire population 5 times.
3. India’s farmer protests
Since September, India’s farmers, constituting over half of the population, have taken the streets in the big cities. They are angered by Modi’s new agricultural reforms. Under the previous system, farmers were guaranteed a minimum price for certain crops. The new laws will cut out the third party, the Agricultural Produce Market Committee. Farmers are able to sell directly to private businesses which can be beneficial in times of high-demand but will also contribute to significantly lower prices if demand drops or other disruptions influence the market. The new laws are impacting the population as it reduces their bargaining power and subsequently their financial security. Naturally, India’s role as the largest spice exporter and the leading producer of rice and milk will affect the food supply chain in other places as well. Therefore, people around the globe have shown solidarity with Indian farmers. From a political point of view, it will be interesting to see how the new policy will influence Modi’s popularity. The Atlantic noted that Modi’s divisive rhetoric in recent years will not be able to stop the wave of protests when Indian farmers unite. Such mass protests in a country as vast as India could easily escalate into a bigger political movement where citizens express their grievances. In turn, Modi could either go in full-on repression mode or accommodate the protesters. Either way, his position will be compromised. Finally, the destabilization of India could lead to a snowball effect when existing issues in the region become more prominent.
4. China versus Alibaba
China’s antitrust investigation into Alibaba exemplifies the tensions between the Communist Party and China’s wealthy business moguls. Alibaba’s transactions amount up to $248 billion which is more than Amazon and eBay combined. Alibaba is not simply an e-commerce platform. The Chinese giant consists of various subsidiary companies and owns a successful payment service, Alipay, handled by Antgroup. Alibaba is involved in sensitive areas like education and media production as well. The popular app, WeChat, is for example managed by Tencent, another subsidiary of Aliba. Recently, the Chinese government accused Alibaba of monopolizing the market. China’s crackdown on business independents like Alibaba marks a new phase of Xi’s repressive policies and signals to big business players that Beijing does not wish to be dominated by billion-dollar big tech.
5. Hong Kong legislative elections
The Hong Kong legislative elections were originally scheduled for 2020. Under the guise of COVID-19, the vote was moved to 2021. In reality, the Chinese government was merely attempting to suppress democratic sentiments. They feared that the legislative elections would be used as an opportunity to form a block against China. Around the same period, China ousted several members of the Legislative Council and 15 others left in protest, leaving Hong Kong without any pro-democracy legislators. Though the outcome of the elections seems to be decided beforehand, the world will be watching as Hong Kong has to find a way to merge its distinct identity with China’s homogenizing and oppressive regime.
6. Dutch parliamentary elections
Though the Dutch elections will not have the world glued to its TV screen, many of us will still be keeping an eye on the polls in March 2021. In the past few months, we saw how right-wing conservatives like Thierry Baudet’s Forum voor Democratie (Forum for Democracy) have struggled to present a united front. Further fragmentation of Dutch right-wing politics makes for an uncertain future. Unexpected switches between party leaders and the COVID-19 crisis only contributed to the already volatile political environment. For now, VVD (Liberal Party) is leading in the polls but the pandemic and the childcare allowance scandal has led to a dent in political trust.
7. Israeli legislative election
On the 23rd of December, the Knesset was dissolved as it could not agree on the budget. According to Israeli law, a new election has to take place in 90 days after the dissolution of parliament. In March 2021, the Israeli people will have a chance to express their preference. The forecasts look positive for Netanyahu’s Likud Party but his premiership is not guaranteed. Israel’s new coalition will influence domestic affairs as well as the relationship between Palestine and other Middle Eastern states. In light of the recent reconciliation attempts between Israel and the Arab states, it will be interesting to see how a different parliament set-up will navigate the newly forged but fragile rapprochement.
8. Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict
This year, existing and build-up tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan culminated in a bloody conflict. The issue was centred around Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-controlled enclave on Azerbaijan’s territory. At the international level, the conflict intensified the tug of war between Russia, Turkey and NATO. After a few weeks of bloodshed, a ceasefire was announced. Nonetheless, the underlying issues preceding the conflict are far from resolved and political entanglements such as the exchange of prisoners make it an arduous task to broker long-term peace between the two states. It is not all unlikely that the conflict will resume next year.
9. Nicaragua elections
Though the media has paid less attention to Nicaragua’s protests compared to those in Brazil, Bolivia and Colombia, it is important to keep an eye on the country as the people will go out to vote in May 2021. Just before the end of the year, Nicaragua’s National Assembly passed a law banning all opponents who are suspected of having financed or encouraged opposition against the current President, Daniel Ortega. The Organization of American States (OAS) has condemned the bill and urged lawmakers to stand up for the people in Nicaragua. In combination with Nicaragua’s disastrous COVID-19 response, it could be that the subsequent elections will trigger a response from Nicaragua’s frustrated population. Furthermore, the suspected fraud in the upcoming elections will further strain the relationship between Nicaragua and the United States and the European Union.
The Sun, amongst various other sources, claims that Putin will step down in 2021. Though the Kremlin has denied all allegations it will nonetheless be interesting to see how Putin and Russia will move into the next year. Putin’s crackdown on opponents has sparked more questions. Is he simply culling the herd, limiting his inner circle even more or will the President actually step down, preparing for a power transition in 2024?
11. The EU’s Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF)
The AMIF is part of the Multiannual Financial Framework for 2021-2027. The member states have agreed to a budget of €9.882 billion. This year we have seen the horrific images of refugee camps in Greece, in particular, camp Moria. Many refugees and asylum seekers are detained under inhumane circumstances, mostly in Southern Europe. The AMIF is an attempt to share the burden equally between member states while providing for better circumstances for those who reside in the camps. On the one hand, AMIF allows for stricter asylum procedures and swift returns. On the other hand, it offers relief to the countries that are disproportionately affected by the influx of migrants. As many EU member states are preoccupied with internal affairs, drastic changes in the migration policy field are much needed. It remains to be seen how resilient the AMIF will be in 2021.
12. Protests in Iraq over currency devaluation
The Central Bank of Iraq (CBI) devalued the currency by over a fifth against the US dollar, affecting the purchasing power of the Iraqi people. Many took the streets in Baghdad and Najaf. Iraq’s oil and import dependency has hit Iraq’s economy due to COVID-19. Food and commodity prices soared and people are struggling to make ends meet. Economic plans for 2021 include cutting expenses, lower tariffs, and devaluation. The country took a severe blow after the pandemic reached the Middle East as well. If the situation in Iraq escalates next year, due to the ongoing economic and health crisis, together with government mismanagement, we might see a new wave of protests. Perhaps such new uprisings will be reminiscent of the Arab Spring in 2011.
13. Bolsonaro and the Amazon rainforest
Earlier this year, large swathes of the Amazon rainforest burned down. This year, the deforestation of the Amazon reached a 12-year high under Bolsonaro, according to The Guardian. COVID-19 has also affected the lives of many indigenous people living in the rainforest. Those residing in secluded areas were forced to choose between access to medical help or staying put. The retreat of the indigenous population, who have been on the forefront when it comes to fighting the destruction of the Amazon, creates more opportunties for landgrabbers to burn down the rainforest. In short, Bolsonaro’s policies, COVID-19 and the fires have accelerated the process of destroying the earth’s lungs.
14. Hungary and Poland versus the European Court of Justice
The EU was stuck in a stalemate with Poland and Hungary regarding the COVID-19 relief package, part of the broader annual EU budget. Both states were opposed to the rule of law mechanism that was set in motion by EU member states. The member states fear that more democratic backsliding in Hungary and Poland would threaten the EU’s core values. A few weeks ago, Poland and Hungary lifted their boycott and the relief package was passed. The rule of law mechanism will only go into effect in 2021. In the meantime, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) will review the legality of the rule of law requirement. This will likely take some time, allowing even more leeway to the EU member states who do not wish to adhere to the rule of law. For the time being, the rule of law provision will remain in place but the ECJs ruling is vital, both on a European level and for Orbán who is up for re-election in 2022.
15. Biden’s presidency
Perhaps a no-brainer, but assuming that President Trump will step down in January, it is time for the Biden-Harris administration to mend the United States. The list of urgent issues that need fixing seems endless. As Biden is selecting his fellow Cabinet members the world is eagerly waiting to see what Joe and Kamala will be able to achieve. Part of this will depend on the Georgia run-off elections. If the Democrats want to hold the Senate, they will need both of Georgia’s Senate seats. A 50-50 set-up plus Harris’s vote as Vice-President is just about enough. The Republicans on the other hand only need one of Georgia’s seats to gain a majority. Major polling outlets like 538 and 270 to Win indicate that the voting outcome will be determined by small margins. Biden’s administration will to some extent be paralyzed if they are unable to hold the Senate.
16. The conflict in Ethiopia
The ongoing conflict in Ethiopia has turned the country upside down. The two fighting parties are the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Though the Tigrayans form a minority, they are used to holding quite a lot of power in the country after the Cold War. Complaints about the aggressive behaviour by the Tigray governing authorities were met with force by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Quickly, the conflict escalated and peace negotiations have not been successful. The Prime Minister refuses any international interference, even humanitarian relief. As the war unfolds in Ethiopia, the second-most populous state in Africa will balance on the precipice of political chaos for years. The influx of refugees from Ethiopia are prone to lead to more unrest in the region. Thousands have sought refuge in Sudan. Ethiopia was considered a regional peacemaker but it is not hard to imagine that given the current situation, the government’s attention will be elsewhere. It was only last year, the Prime Minister was granted the Nobel Prize for brokering peace with Eritrea.
17. Worldwide famine
As we have seen the pandemic unfold, experts and NGOs have pointed out the indirect effects of COVID-19: the looming famine that will strike our planet. As the West rushed to bulk purchase a lifetime supply of pasta, toilet paper and flour, more people are projected to die from hunger compared to COVID-19. While some are scrambling to get the vaccine in order to return to their daily lives, many are not so fortunate to even worry about this as their first priority will be to get food on the table.
18. Black Lives Matter
2020 was the year of Black Lives Matter. After the death of George Floyd, the global anti-racism movement gained momentum. BLM evolved into a powerful organisation which expanded even more through collaboration with progressive alliances such as the feminist and LGBTQ+ movements. However, after the 2020 whirlwind, it remains to be seen to what extent BLM can shape policies and individual awareness when it comes to social issues regarding race. Though it is not expected that the sentiment behind BLM will die out anytime soon, its organizational form (or lack thereof) will be decisive for its success. BLM representatives have had conversations with governmental agencies but its concrete role in policymaking is yet unsure.
As Erdogan has captured the attention of both Europe and the Middle East, it is important to keep an eye on the domestic situation. Like in virtually every other state, the global pandemic has affected the public’s trust in their political leaders. When opposition against Erdogan rises, a meltdown and subsequent chaos could follow. Meanwhile, Syria, Libya, Azerbaijan and the Mediterranean are all affected by Ankara’s foreign policy, meaning that stability is essential to avoid more international skirmishes. Will Erdogan support a more aggressive militant approach or will Turkey resort to diplomatic avenues in 2021 in order to reorient its gaze towards domestic issues?
20. Antitrust lawsuit against Facebook
2020 was also the year where big tech companies like Facebook came under scrutiny. Both its users as well as governments started to protest the lack of transparency and accountability. Thanks to documentaries like the Social Dilemma and the role of social media in the US elections, old concerns were raised again. Facebook’s monopoly position was a thorn in the eye of US policymakers. This year Facebook was slapped with multiple lawsuits by the Federal Trade Commission and individual states. They demand that Facebook will be broken up. Such high profile antitrust cases usually take years but in 2021, the first steps in the saga will unfold. What will a future without Facebook or a divided Facebook look like? Is it a way to gain back control over social media or will it be even harder to monitor multiple tech giants when Facebook loses its monopoly?
21. China’s five-year plan
In October 2020, China announces its new five-year plan for 2021-2025. One major focus is aimed at promoting dual circulation. In the past, China has been more interested in harvesting quick international profits, low-hanging fruit. The uncertainty of the world economy and hampering trade relations have forced China to take a renewed position regarding the domestic economy. The Asian superpower wants to cater to the consumption needs of its huge population. Though China’s economic growth was not as spectacular as in previous years, China is still projected to take over the US economy in 2028, despite COVID-19.
Of course, these 21 developments represent but a limited selection of all global events that are likely to shape 2021. Especially this year, we were painfully confronted with the fickle nature of world politics and the limited power of human agency when something as intangible as a virus forcefully enters our lives. Additionally, the lack of empirically sound predictions brought by political scientists has been limited thus far so it is safe to say the above-mentioned developments are merely part of a non-exhaustive list.
For now, I simply want to extend my gratitude to all DEBAT’s readers. Thank you for tagging along with us. I am excited to show you everything that DEBAT has in stock for the next 365 days. If 2021 is only half as turbulent as 2020, I am sure there will be enough to discuss, analyze and share with you.
Here’s to a bright New Year and a fond farewell to the old; here’s to the things that are yet to come, and to the memories that we hold.
Image by Clay Banks on Unsplash