2014 surely was a major turning point for Europe. The EU institutions undertook a full-fledged make-up, with a renewed composition of the Parliament and a brand new Commission and President of the European Council. Notwithstanding the expectable delay of its legislative activity, several external dossiers had to be updated at fast pace, especially due to the flaming crisis around the Union.
In the new year, the EU will easily get back to its usual – and less attractive – internal proceedings, but it will not be the same again in foreign policy. 2015 was brought by a long wave of uncertainty and, most probably, the EU will have to face a mixture of old troubles and dangerous surprises. Let’s have a glimpse on the priorities for next months.
Old troubles first: not surprisingly, the EU will remain particularly committed in tackling the rise of ISIL/Da’esh and contribute to stabilize the situation in Ukraine.
The self-proclaimed Caliphate will be the source of the most unpredictable and dangerous developments. Various commentators agree that the recent killing in Paris (already named as the “European 9/11”) could be linked to an increased activism of the Caliphate on satellite groups. However, the area of operations of other groupings inspired by ISIL has already spread to the Arab peninsula, while other terrorist groups, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria or Al Shabab in the Horn of Africa are clearly benefitting from the international community focusing on Syria and Iraq.
In the frontline, local troops are slowly liberating the area around Kobane, but it must be seen whether the current strategy of air coverage on land operations will be pursued in further areas. Any way out requires a political settlement in Syria, but moderate factions are being increasingly marginalized amidst the violence, and the international community is now challenged by a threefold problem: ISIL, Syrian political framework, and the Kurds question.
The truce in Ukraine remains extremely volatile, and while the death toll keeps rising, the “armed groups” in the Eastern regions are slowly consolidating a parallel set of services and institutions in order to reduce the central authority over those territories. The terrible balance is far from being altered, as Kiev’s military efforts are constantly paired through influxes from the Eastern border. The EU just approved an additional package of financial aid to Ukraine, but those measures look more aimed to avoid additional shortcomings ensuing from the stabilization process, rather than set up a targeted assistance.
The same goes for EU relations with Russia. The fall of oil price (under 50$ per barrel since last week) is adding significant pressure and draining strength from the neighbouring bear, but this will only increase Putin’s external ambitions, as the President may easily exploit nationalist leanings to divert public opinion from the economic crisis. Regardless the eventual developments of the crisis in Eastern Europe and the lifting of sanctions, the EU must be ready to face a prolonged chill in its relations with Moscow as well as the consequences of its risky – yet growing – cooperation with Beijing.
The new year will also tell us if the joint endeavours of US, NATO and the EU in Afghanistan will succeed in the stability-trial. President Obama declared the end of the operation “Enduring Freedom”, closing the longest war in American history, but about 10.000 US troops will remain on the ground (with a mostly unchanged mandate) alongside with training and advisory missions of the international community (EU included). The latter kind of intervention will be still needed to avoid Afghanistan falling again in the spiral of lack of State effectivity and renewed rise of terrorist and criminal groups – the most undesirable scenario, as Iraq just recalled us.
The foreseeable “dangerous surprises” are certainly well known to European policy-makers. Yet, their developments may cause widespread instability on the already much-troubled EU border.
The first explosive challenge is certainly Libya. The current scenario is directly inherited by the civil war which followed Qaddafi’s fall. Radical factions affiliated to extremist Islamism (Fajr Libya) took over Tripoli last August, pushing the legitimate government eastwards and thus reopening a wide-spread armed confrontation among the two parties. The international community left the country and, at the moment, all efforts are concentrated in the hands of the UN Special Envoy, Bernardino Léon. Unfortunately, a negotiation round agreed to take place on January 4th was delayed, and fewer tools remain to diplomatic action. Besides the direct confrontation and instability, this crisis is most likely to produce negative spill-overs in terms of refugees, illegal trafficking and wide-spread diffusion of weapons. Being the main door to European shores, an increased EU activism is both likely and desirable – with the hope that, this time, any kind of intervention will be properly followed-up by the international community.
Similar fears, even if at lower intensity, are coming from the national reconciliation in Mali. The stabilization of Mali is the corner stone to open for progressive improvements in the whole Sahel, but the outcome of reconciliation talks in Algiers is still uncertain. If the fracture between Bamako and the North will not be treaded soon at the political level, any attempt to reintegrate rebel groups and ensure effective governance in the northern region will be vain. Criminal activities have been flourishing across country borders in the Sahel, and their consolidation pose a major issue to the EU as their de-stabilizing effect directly impacts our immediate neighbourhood.
Unfortunately, notwithstanding the amazing economic performances of many countries in Africa, the continent will provide additional sources of concern. Boko Haram activities around northern Nigeria on the west, and Al Shabab campaigns on the east are a living threat to local population and regional stability in both areas.. The EU is already supporting the United Nations and the African Union with different instruments, yet, both terrorist organisations widened their scope of activity, thus making current responses hardly effective in the long run.
Finally, good news are expected with the end of the Iran nuclear talks (“P5+1”, or e”E3+3” for Europeans) by the end of June 2015. A final agreement was not reached last November, but sources are optimistic about the current way-forward, and the USA too seems likely to soften their stance on Teheran.
Even though additional attention is required towards our Asian partners, the EU is most likely to focus on its neighbourhood and the main priorities recalled above.
An already long list, which ensure that 2015 will be no boring year at all.