Now the decade has drawn to a close, Ambassador Partnership Co-Chairmen, Peter Collecott and Richard Schiffer, take a look back over 2019 and predict what we may expect for the new decade ahead
There were many of us who hoped – perhaps against the odds – that 2019 would bring us some relief from the political gloom of the past few years, in the UK and globally. An end to the domination of British politics by Brexit and its toxic debate; an end to bloodletting in Syria and Yemen; perhaps, even, a deal between China and the US that would remove the cloud hanging over the world economy. Sadly, none of that came to pass.
Brexit has continued to dominate British politics. Theresa May’s dogged but cack-handed attempts to negotiate a deal with the EU, and then to get it approved by a resolutely hostile but splintered Parliament, eventually came to their inevitably bad end. Having been successively thwarted by the hard Brexiteers and then the Remainers in her own party, it was rather tragic to witness her massively belated attempt to forge a cross-party consensus with a Labour Party still finding it easier to posture politically than to forge a coherent Brexit policy. Both major parties started to crumble at the edges; but the new party then formed only lasted a few months, and there was no major realignment of politics.
So, after an unremarkable Tory Party leadership contest, we ended up with Boris Johnson as Prime Minister heading a Brexiteer government, and promising to leave the EU by 31 October, come what may. This aim was thwarted by a combination of Parliament and the Courts, forcing Johnson to do a deal with the EU which reverted to their original suggestion of treating Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK – which May and Johnson had each said they could never accept – thus losing the support of the DUP, worsening further the Parliamentary arithmetic.
History may well judge harshly the decision of the LibDems and the SNP to allow Johnson a December Election. Johnson won his gamble and obtained a large majority in Parliament with the slogan ‘Get Brexit Done.’ This is, of course, another chimera. The UK will now leave the EU by 31 January, but with a transition period of only 11 months, insufficient to agree even a bare bones free trade deal if there is to be significant regulatory divergence. By July, Johnson will be confronted with having to decide whether to ask for an extension to the transition period.
If he holds to his promise not to, we may well not have escaped the spectre of a no-deal exit, although the large majority should enable Johnson to make compromises leading to a less hard Brexit. However, this, in turn, would complicate doing a trade deal with the US. There is no escape from Brexit wrangling and uncertainty yet awhile; and it will take a decade to sort out properly our future relationship with the EU, let alone the rest of the world. Meanwhile the Labour Party will continue its turmoil as it decides where to go post-Brexit and post-Jeremy Corbyn.
Europe is showing increasing signs of being tired of Brexit. The new Commission, delayed by wrangling with the Parliament, is keen to deal with other pressing issues, including shoring up the euro area, and the next seven-year budget negotiations, the threat of a new recession, and tensions between the East and West of the continent, and across the Atlantic. Germanyis showing little leadership as the economy slows, and both the continuation of the present ruling coalition and the identity of Angela Merkel’s successor are in doubt. In contrast, President Macron is keen to show leadership, but does not have a strong German partner, and Franceis too weak for him to carry it on his own. The recent NATO summit was a display of disunity, rather than the resolve required.
The UK is not only excluding itself from the European debate but is almost absent in the wider foreign policy sphere. President Putin is the winner both from the lack of European and transatlantic unity, and from President Trump’s increasingly idiosyncratic policy in the Middle East – ceding further ground in Syriato the Turks but mainly to Russia, while abandoning the Kurds; and compromising any chance of brokering movement on Israel/Palestine by bowing to Israeli pressure on Jerusalem, Golan and settlements. Russia is forcing its way back into the Middle East, having been absent for decades.
In Asia, the Chinese economy is continuing to slow, as much due to domestic problems as to the continuing confrontation with the US over trade and other issues – where, it seems, both sides are now looking for a face-saving way out. This slowing economy has ripple effects on China’s neighbours. However, it is not noticeably restraining the continual projection of Chinese power across the continent – to the East pursuing its policy of maritime expansion, pushing the US further off-shore; to the West using the Road and Belt Initiative to exert economic power across the Eurasian land mass. Less certain is how the situation in Hong Kong will resolve itself. Creeping Chinese control has met strong and sustained resistance. The Chinese cannot allow this to continue indefinitely, but for once appear scared of the reaction if they crack down too obviously.
Lying behind all these developments are two longer-term trends – the weakening faith of the Western democracies in the ability of their own political institutions to address the challenges of a globalised world in which the West is no-longer the dominant player; and the continual erosion of the international institutions and understandings which have maintained peace and economic growth in the post-War world. It is bad enough when the West’s natural adversaries are seeking to achieve this. However, we are living in an era in which the US President is massively abetting both trends. 2020 will decide whether we have another four years of this or can soon begin to try to repair the damage before it is too late. To do this, we will need wise leadership – national and international – which is in very short supply in a world increasingly characterised by mendacious populists and authoritarian strongmen.
One positive we may draw from 2019, perhaps, is that climate change is now being taken more seriously, including in the US, outside the Federal Administration. We may not agree with the tactics of Extinction Rebellion, but they seem to have hit a nerve.
The second decade of the twenty-first century has drawn to an inglorious close. We trust that we may look forward to greater stability, prosperity and progress over the next ten years.