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2024: a year where our worst fears may not happen

Peter Guilford / Jan 2024

Image: Shutterstock

 

So gloomy has the global geo-political outlook become that one way to stay positive in 2024 is to predict what will not happen rather than what will. Here is my admittedly optimistic take:

Russia will not win its war against Ukraine; the Gaza war will not spread to Lebanon beyond Hizbollah strongholds in the south, and Iran will not let its mischief-making across the region spill into head-on conflict with Israel and the US; China will not invade Taiwan after the Presidential election on January 14; the world economy will defy the pundits for the second year running and avoid tipping into recession. And finally, Donald Trump will not (quite) get re-elected.

A Trump victory could nonetheless have serious repercussions for Europe and the world. How serious though? Would he really do a snap deal with Moscow that could leave an emboldened Putin one step closer to Nato and EU borders, creating an existential threat for both? America’s transatlantic instincts run deep. Any risk of Trump taking the US out of the alliance must surely have receded, too, with the provision in the US Defense Bill, recently passed, prohibiting a President from withdrawing from Nato without the consent of Congress. This measure has strong bipartisan support.

The biggest impact of a Trump 2.0 in Europe would perhaps be on trade. His promised 10% tariff on many imports into America would certainly not protect US jobs, but it would tear up what remains of the World Trade Organisation, damage transatlantic ties and stifle efforts to reboot the global economy. It would probably also give the EU and Beijing something to agree on, which in turn would irk Washington.

Could a Trump victory bring Britain closer to the rest of Europe? Only if he genuinely loosens America’s commitment to Nato and backs away from supporting Ukraine, both of which are unlikely. The fact is, the UK and EU are nudging closer together anyway. Britain’s re-entry into the Horizon research programme, and the EU’s decision to delay tariffs on e-vehicles made in Britain, are green shoots of rapprochement that will multiply in the coming years, though Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his likely replacement Keir Starmer will keep tip-toeing round the question of EU membership. This will remain politically unpalatable to both sides for many years to come.

Europe’s economy will continue to trail America and Asia, hampered by Germany’s declining exports to China and its cutting of ties with Russia. This will not stop the EU’s regulatory zeal, however, notably in tech and especially in AI. This may be tempered by a growing acceptance, above all by French President Macron, that regulation is not the answer to all Europe’s ills and that a more balanced industrial policy is needed that encourages investment for growth.

There will be a new five-year EU administration as of next Autumn, but whoever wins the top jobs in the Commission will continue to promote “European digital sovereignty”, a catch-phrase for reining in American (and increasingly, Chinese) Big Tech, keeping their platforms open so that European makers of software, apps and other equipment can market their services fairly.

Much of the focus this year will shift to artificial intelligence, which is developing so fast that it is hard to see regulators staying ahead of the curve, but where the debate over the societal impact of AI will intensify. It will be interesting to compare this to other countries with advanced AI research, notably the US where there is an impressively bipartisan approach in the Senate, but also Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the UK and Israel, and of course China which continues to pour eye-watering sums of money into AI.

Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen, likely to win a second term, will pursue her environmental agenda will renewed vigour though against growing opposition from industry, and possibly from voters in the European Parliament elections next June. Renewable energies and notably batteries will be central. The challenge is to avoid Chinese dominance over the supply of Rare Earths and other minerals needed to produce batteries, windmills and solar farms, keeping Europe’s green industries competitive in the process. The “clean tech” agenda, too, will take more visible shape in 2024, with crypto, big data centres and now AI coming under pressure to reveal and reduce their massive energy footprint.

2024 will see the centre ground of European politics pivot further to the right, driven mainly by canny politicians exploiting fears of uncontrolled immigration, and by a backlash against the perceived “woke” agenda. Geert Wilders gave the EU a jolt by winning in the Netherlands, though he will struggle to form a government. Belgium is expected to move rightwards during elections in June too.

This trend will be reflected in the Euro-elections, though these are more of a bellwether of national politics than an influence upon it. In reality the Euro-Parliament will probably still be run by a rickety coalition of centre left and centre right, with more bark but little more bite coming from the fringes. Europe, nationally and EU-wide, is finding it harder to hold coalitions together these days.

There was relief in Brussels last November when pro-EU Donald Tusk won Poland’s election. Is anti-EU populism on the wane? There is a risk of wishful thinking here. Tusk has developed a killer instinct since returning to Warsaw, which he arguably needed to win power but which he is now deploying systematically by purging the Polish administration of PiS party members. The “good guy” won so Europe’s liberals are happy; and yes, he will give a much-needed moral boost to the EU as well as unwavering support to Ukraine. But a vindictive, winner-takes-all approach to leadership could bode ill for a return to good governance and the rule of law in Poland.

Hungary’s Viktor Orbán will remain EU gadfly-in-chief, but how much does this affect daily business? He slows stuff down but rarely blocks it. At times he says what other leaders dare not say. Similarly illiberal things happen in other member states too, though he is ostentatiously anti-EU and pro-Putin while turning the misspending of European funds into an art form, so the optics are dreadful. Still, the new EU administration is unlikely to take a harder line on him than the current one has.

Meanwhile, Georgia Meloni of Italy is managing to give an air of respectability to the Right, chiefly because her attempts to broker outcomes on immigration place her in the mainstream of European politics, not at the extremes. Can we call her Europe’s first moderate fascist? The very term illustrates just how tricky it is to pinpoint political shifts, and not just in Europe. AI makes this even trickier. This year sees a record number of elections around the globe, and many will involve campaigns influenced for the first time by AI, especially in the US. 2024 may be a year to expect the unexpected at the ballot box.

 

Peter Guilford

Peter Guilford

January 2024

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