Analysis Cas Mudde on what's next for 2021

2021: The post-year

What can we expect after such a terrible year as 2020? Most people, elites and masses alike, simply crave “normalisation,” i.e. a return to a past which looks much better in hindsight than it was experienced at the time. In that sense, the bar is low, perhaps even too low.

Published on 30 December 2020 at 16:00

For Europe, 2021 will be the year of “posts”: post-Brexit, post-Trump, post-Covid-19, but also post-Merkel. It is a year to shape the legacies of two anni horribili, 2020 and 2016, to create a new normal, and to finally look forward again.

Post-Brexit

2020 was started with Brexit and ended with Brexit, after having been largely pushed out of the news cycle by the covid-19 pandemic and US elections for most of the year. Just before Christmas the European Union (EU) and the United Kingdom (UK) finally came to an agreement, preventing an increasingly feared, and threatened, “No Deal Brexit.” As both sides have declared themselves the winner, and most pundits have remained loyal to the “Brexit is a loss-loss narrative,” European politicians can finally move beyond the never-ending saga. Sure, there are almost as many important issues left open as closed, but the UK is no longer part of the EU.

Most people, on both sides, had moved already. Even before 2020 they had accepted Brexit, whether they liked it or not, and focused on more concrete issues, from education to housing, and then public health. In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson will claim to have delivered his election promise, as Labour will continue to struggle to find a coherent, let alone popular, position on Brexit. But soon the costs will become clear to the British people, even if some can be camouflaged by covid-19, and particularly regional issues will take center-stage. 

First and foremost, the Scottish elections of May 2021 will keep Brexit high on the agenda, as the Scottish National Party (SNP) of popular First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will fight the elections on the basis of a second Independence referendum, promising an independent Scotland within the EU. Second, the relationships between the Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland, as well as between Ireland and the UK, will be tested, as no one really knows what the EU-UK Agreement of 2020 means for the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. And, third, this year will show whether the newfound love for the Conservative Party of England’s North, won with the promise of Brexit, is resistant to the reality of Brexit.

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In addition to working out the (many) last details of its agreement with the UK, the EU will also have to start rethinking its relationship with the island state. It has to start moving beyond the view of the reluctant, and even “ungrateful”, member and develop some kind of new relationship based on mutual dependence and sovereignty. While similar relationships already exist, for instance with Norway and Switzerland, none of these countries have the power and relevance of the UK. And both the EU and UK have to do this as they are faced with a new, if partly familiar, situation across the Atlantic.

Post-Trump

The second legacy of 2016 is related to President Donald Trump. Albeit it kicking and screaming, at least virtually on Twitter, Trump will leave the White House on January 20 and be replaced by President Joe Biden. There will be a collective sigh of relief in Brussels and most of the European capitals – with some exceptions (notably Budapest, Ljubljana, and Warsaw) – and a sense of a return to normal will quickly be re-established. But Biden will not be Obama (and Obama was not the president he is now remembered as).

On the upside, despite four years of obsessive political and public debate of every single Tweet of Trump, his legacy will probably be small, if not marginal, particularly in terms of EU-US relations. It is clear that the European elites have forgiven the Americans everything and cannot wait to return to the past. The US will have to change little to return to previous levels of cooperation, mainly change some ambassadors and the Secretary of State, as most of the State Department apparatus was demoralised but essentially untouched.

But even though President Biden will support the EU, and look for closer collaboration with its traditional European allies to deal with China, Iran, and Russia, it will not solve the EU’s foreign policy problems. With the US looking more to the Pacific than Atlantic, the EU will have to develop an own foreign policy, or become merely Washington poodle. Because even though Biden is a old Transatlanticist, he knows that his presidency is defined by how the US deals with non-European “rogue” states, and that many Americans support an “America First” foreign policy, albeit in a more moderate form than that of Trump.

Post-Covid-19

While it is not 100 percent certain that Europe will leave the pandemic behind it in 2020, let alone the rest of the world, the vast majority of Europeans should be vaccinated in 2021 and a new economic and social normality should be established. However, the economic costs will continue, for at least another year, and pressure to share these costs fairly within Europe will keep dividing the EU. This will be further complicated by some key elections, most notably in the Netherlands (March) and Germany (September), two countries that have often pushed for EU-wide austerity and opposed significant North-South transfers.

The economic costs of the pandemic will continue, for at least another year, and pressure to share these costs fairly within Europe will keep dividing the EU.

After an initial disastrous non-policy, the EU recovered reasonably well by setting up modest collective responses in terms of economic and public health support. Both will be harder to continue as the pandemic is overcome, and other priorities, often national ones, will start to dominate political and public debates again. Moreover, investing in prevention is only popular when it is too late, i.e. when the economic or health crisis has emerged, not before it. Being confronted by the economic consequences of both Brexit and Covid-19, many Northern states will feel growing pressure to spend at home rather than “abroad,” which the EU still is to most Europeans.

Post-Merkel

Finally, 2021 will bring an end to the political career of Frau Europa, Angela Merkel, who will not for election again. Merkel has finally received the praise she deserved, and yet was so often denied, post-2016. Confronted by right-wing populist narcissists like Johnson and Trump, the international media increasingly hailed the calmness and expertise of Merkel, after having written her off almost annually since she became Chancellor in 2005. Consequently, there is now a bsroad European consensus that Merkel's political retirement will leave a huge vacuum at the heart of European politics. Even worse, with the “liberal” Merkel gone, liberal democracy across Europe is at peril.

"Mutti" has been the leader of the most powerful state of the EU for more than one-and-a-half decade. However, she has never been a strong European leader. Nor has she been a strong defender of liberal democracy within the EU (and outside of it). In fact, Merkel has been a “Germany First” Chancellor, who chose German interests over European solidarity in most of the main crises, from the Great Recession to the so-called “refugee crisis”. She also was instrumental in letting Viktor Orbán create an authoritarian state within the EU, as her CDU protected Fidesz in Brussels and German (car) industries provided Orbán and his cronies with economic “success” and graft. 

This is not to say that Merkel was Europe’s problem, but she definitely wasn’t Europe’s savior either. Moreover, her successor as CDU leader, and thereby almost certainly German Chancellor, will undoubtedly change little. The EU works well for Germany and resistance to more active European leadership, let alone vision, of Germany remains widespread within both Germany and the EU. Still, if there is to be any truly new European reality, which will go beyond a mere return to a slightly adjusted pre-2016 situation, it will be decided in the most important European elections of 2021: the CDU leadership elections of 15-16 January.


A book and a podcast

In his latest book, The Far Right Today (Polity Press, 2019), Dutch political scientist and right-wing expert Cas Mudde explains the rise of nationalist, reactionary and far-right in Europe and the US, and “gives an accessible account of the history and ideology of the far right as we know it today, as well as the causes and consequences of its mobilisation”, as Katherine Williams puts it.

Mudde recently launched his own podcast show, Radikaal, which focuses on “the radical aspects of music, politics & sports”.


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