The world in 2018: Brexit, US mid-terms, Korean unrest

From Trump to tragedy, Kim Jong-un to a royal wedding, a compelling roundup from an at times incredible year

 German chancellor and leader of the German Christian Democrats Angela Merkel with Horst Seehofer, governor of Bavaria and leader of the Bavarian Christian Social Unio. Photograph: Alexandra Beier/Getty Images

German chancellor and leader of the German Christian Democrats Angela Merkel with Horst Seehofer, governor of Bavaria and leader of the Bavarian Christian Social Unio. Photograph: Alexandra Beier/Getty Images

 

US: Election year

Suzanne Lynch, Washington Correspondent

As the sun sets on 2017, the United States is coming to terms with the first year of a Trump presidency that many thought would never happen. It is a year since the businessman-turned-reality TV star defied all political norms and won the US presidential election. Over the past 11 months, the president has been trying to push through his agenda and “America First” policy from the White House, railing against the checks and balances of the US constitutional system, as he seeks to tear up the political rule book.

Despite his evident failures – his promise to repeal and replace Obamacare and build a wall along the Mexican border, for example, have failed to materialise – he has nonetheless followed through on many of his campaign promises, including a renegotiation of trade deals, a new tax reform package and a withdrawal from the Iran deal and the Paris climate agreement.

The question “will he last?” has been a leitmotif through the first year of his presidency and the question of impeachment hangs in the air.

2018 is likely to bring answers. The mid-term elections in November promise to be the defining moment of 2018 in US politics– they will be the first major test of sentiment towards Trump since his election victory, but may also determine if Trump stays the course as president.

With the Republican party controlling both houses of Congress, the possibility of impeachment seems highly unlikely at the moment. Only Congress can decide whether to launch impeachment proceedings, and so far the Republican Party has remained loyal to the president. Should control of the House pass to Democrats in the mid-terms, however, the implications for Trump could be very different.

All 435 seats in the House of Representatives and a third of the Senate’s 100 seats are up for grabs when Americans go to the polls on November 6th, 2018. While the opposition traditionally performs well in mid-term elections, the Democrat’s strategists believe the party has more chance of winning control of the House rather than the Senate.

Of the 33 senators up for re-election, 25 are Democrats or Democrat-leaning independents. Many are contesting states that Trump won in 2016, making their task difficult.

On the House side, the picture looks more positive for Democrats, who need to add 24 seats to tip the balance of the chamber in their favour. Strategists are focusing on districts currently held by Republican representatives but who voted for Hillary Clinton in the last election.

Away from the electoral cycle, 2018 brings a busy legislative agenda. First up will be the implementation of the tax reform package, the signature policy achievement of Trump’s first year in office, which is likely to affect the take-home pay of millions of American workers.

In March, Congress will be required to produce a legislative solution to the so-called “Dreamers” programme, an Obama-era law that gave protection to undocumented migrants who were brought to the United States as children.

June will bring the Trump administration’s decision to recognise Jerusalem back into focus, when the six-monthly waiver allowing successive presidents not to move the embassy there comes up for signing. While Trump signed the waiver in December, it is unclear if he will sign it again.

With new Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell set to replace Janet Yellen in February, all eyes will be on the US economy, which has been storming ahead in 2017. The impact of a changing of the guard at the Fed on interest rate policy will be closely watched. So too will be the future direction of the stock market which has been reaching record-breaking highs in 2017, buoyed in part by a robust performance of tech shares.

But the real story of 2018 may well be the outcome of the Robert Mueller investigation. With Paul Manafort and Robert Gates due in court in May, and the investigation continuing to gather pace, any finding of collaboration between Trump and Russia during the election could be a defining moment for the Trump presidency and US politics more generally.

Britain: Exit strategy

Denis Staunton, London Editor

Theresa May begins 2018 with her Conservative Party mostly united around her leadership, as backbench MPs suggest she could remain in office until 2021. For many, she is the least worst candidate to lead them “until the Brexit process is completed”, a weasel phrase that could refer to any time between March 2019, when Britain leaves the EU, to the end of a transition phase two years later.

What almost nobody expects is that the prime minister will lead her party into the next general election, which is due in 2022, according to the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. The act makes it very difficult to dislodge a sitting government before the end of a five-year term because it demands a no-confidence vote rather than a defeat on a money bill, for example.

As May demonstrated in 2017, a government can circumvent the legislation quite easily by voting no confidence in itself.

The Conservative government remains precarious, however, on account of its reliance on the votes of 10 MPs from the Democratic Unionist Party. The DUP has shown itself to be as ruthless and cunning in political negotiations at Westminster as they have been at Stormont, as the prime minister learned when they vetoed her first attempt at a deal with Jean-Claude Juncker in December.

Conservatives reassure themselves with the knowledge that the DUP does not wish to install Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street and the prejudice that all Northern Ireland parties are essentially mercenary and will concede anything in return for a big enough bribe. The history of Northern Ireland tells a different story, as unionists have consistently prioritised identity over financial self-interest when forced to make a choice.

The deal agreed in December to move Brexit talks on to the second phase is riddled with ambiguity and contradictions when it comes to how to avoid a hard Border in Ireland. During the early months of 2018, when the agreement is codified into a legally binding text, there will be pressure to clarify some of the ambiguity. For May to do so is to risk alienating the DUP on the one hand or watching the deal with the EU unravel on the other.

While the withdrawal agreement is being nailed down, Britain and the EU will work out the details of a transition arrangement to cover the years immediately after Brexit. Both sides agree it must be time-limited and relatively short, probably about two years, and that it should mean that almost everything remains unchanged.

Thus, Britain will have left the single market and the customs union but it will abide by the rules of both. Privately, British officials acknowledge that they will also have to follow new rules agreed after Brexit. If the transition deal and the withdrawal agreement are settled, the two sides will discuss a framework for their future relationship.

This will outline the broad shape of a trade deal and a new treaty on security co-operation, with negotiations continuing during the transition period.

Beyond Brexit, May faces trouble at the end of February when Donald Trump visits London to open a new US embassy. It will be a working visit rather than an official one, so there will be no state banquet and no trip up the Mall to Buckingham Palace. Still, the protests are likely to be big, noisy and visible to the thin-skinned American president, who has an awkward relationship with May.

Britain will celebrate a happier Anglo-American relationship on May 19th, when Prince Harry marries Meghan Markle at St George’s Chapel in Windsor. Harry’s Prince Hal-like transformation from a scandal-prone tearaway to an earnest advocate for worthy causes such as mental health awareness has made him one of the most popular members of his family.

Markle’s first public appearances in Britain have been a success, and the newspapers have so far failed to dredge up any information about her past they could use to discredit her. Her familiarity with the pressures of public fame and her easy manner with crowds should be useful in her new life. Before that, however, she has to get baptised, become a British citizen and get to know her complicated new family.

Most British pundits are predicting that, after the turbulence of the past two years, 2018 will be relatively calm. With tensions likely to rise as the reality of Brexit begins to dawn, it’s at least as likely that Britain in 2018 will see its third successive year of tumult.

Europe: The right rises

Patrick Smyth, Europe Editor

When Sebastian Kurz (31) won the Austrian chancellorship in October the press hailed a generational shift in political leaders, the “age of Macron and Trudeau” – and they might have added the name of Leo Varadkar.

Now, coming up fast on the inside track to join this youth leadership in 2018 is the potential leader of the fourth largest economy in the EU, Italy – Luigi Di Maio, the 31-year-old candidate of the maverick Five Star Movement. His party is currently leading in the polls for a much-anticipated general election that must be held before the end of May.

The most important political development anticipated in the EU early in 2018 will, however, undoubtedly be the finalising of the shape of a German coalition, probably between Angela Merkel’s CDU and the Social Democrats led by Martin Shultz. Crucially that will make possible the re-energising of the Franco-German engine so critical to forward movement in the union.

Other EU general elections in 2018, in Sweden, Hungary, Latvia and Slovenia, and the result of the Catalan vote just before Christmas 2017, will also provide a backdrop for and testing of the political climate for a year inevitably dominated by the Brexit negotiations.

These face an unofficial October deadline for the conclusion of a “divorce” deal and agreement on “transition” arrangements.

“Transition” talks will begin early in the new year and are expected to set out the modalities of a two-year period after Brexit when the UK will continue to enjoy its current rights and obligations as a member, without a seat at the table. The commission’s Brexit task force will then open discussions with the UK on the “framework of a future trade relationship”.

In parallel, a strand of talks will continue the discussions on the Irish issues to put flesh on the “no hard border” agreement hammered out in December.

If the UK is to leave by March 2019, approvals of the final divorce deal will have to be cleared in all the union’s national parliaments within those four intervening months between October and March.

In Sweden the resilience of Europe’s new “awkward squad” of far-right nationalist and anti-Islam parties will be tested in the performance of their local manifestation: the Sweden Democrats. 2017 had seen their seemingly inexorable rise curtailed in France, Austria and the Netherlands, although victory by the Eurosceptic ANO party and its billionaire leader, Andrej Babiš, in the Czech Republic’s election suggested that the nationalist far-right is far from a spent force.

That reality will certainly be reflected in Hungary, which will elect a new parliament in April, and where Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s populist Fidesz party is far ahead in the polls, with neo-Nazi Jobbik its nearest rival.

The migrant issue will be central to the far more unpredictable Italian election, which could yet see the political resurrection of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, the decisive eclipse of Italy’s Blair-like former prime minister Matteo Renzi, or the elevation to office of Luigi Di Maio ... or all the above.

Berlusconi cannot run for office because of a 2103 fraud conviction but is still hoping the European Court of Human Rights will shortly allow him to do so.

Opinion polls suggest that the right – made up of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the anti-immigrant Northern League, each with about 15 per cent, and the nationalist Brothers of Italy, on about 5 per cent – will win. But a change to the electoral law is likely to stop any one bloc winning an absolute majority of seats, resulting in political gridlock.

European capitals will be watching nervously what happens in Rome. Its election will test, among other stress points, the country’s ambivalent relationship with the single currency, its towering debt (debt is second-highest in the euro area, after Greece) and a troubled banking system still trying to dispose of decade-old poisonous holdings.

The Middle East: Further instability

Vincent Durac

In the seven years since the uprising in Tunisia began in December 2010, the Middle East has experienced political violence and instability on an unparalleled scale. The past 12 months have been no different in this regard. However, there have been some highly significant shifts both in underlying political dynamics and in the nature of conflict across the region.

Some of the most striking developments have taken place in Saudi Arabia, the bastion of ultra-conservative Wahhabi Islam, where the new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, inaugurated a series of reform initiatives designed to return the country to “moderate” Islam and transform it into an open society that would empower its citizens and attract investors. However, other initiatives of the crown prince have raised eyebrows.

In June, Saudi Arabia launched a diplomatic offensive against its tiny neighbour Qatar, abruptly cutting off diplomatic relations setting out a series of demands with which it would be near-impossible for Qatar to comply. Even more startling were the arrests in November of 11 princes, four ministers and dozens of former ministers, ostensibly as part of an anti-corruption drive.

Also in November, Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri was summoned to Riyadh, forced to resign and detained against his will in a Saudi effort to counter increasing Iranian influence in Lebanon. The move backfired as bin Salman failed to generate support for the move. On his release, Hariri rescinded his resignation, dealing a blow to Saudi attempts to project its hegemony in the region.

Mohammed bin Salman sees himself as a reformist figure set on ending endemic corruption in Saudi Arabia. Others see his increasingly erratic behaviour as motivated by a concern to consolidate his own position in the country. In 2015, as defence minister, he launched the Saudi intervention in Yemen, motivated again by concern at Iranian influence.

In the past year, he has overseen its continued bombardment with devastating humanitarian consequences. More than 10,000 people have been killed, millions have been displaced and millions more, mostly children, suffering from malnutrition and disease.

In 2017, Yemen replaced Syria as the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis. This is not least due to the impact of Russia’s intervention in 2015 when the regime of Bashar al-Assad was losing control over vast swathes of Syria’s territory. The restoration of regime control in Syria has seen the capture of the last town held by militants of Islamic State, also known as Isis.

Syria declared victory over Isis in November 2017, four months after Iraqi leader, Haider al-Abadi, had done likewise, following the expulsion of Isis militants from their stronghold in Mosul, the city in which Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had proclaimed an Islamic caliphate in June 2014.

However, the defeat of Isis in Syria and Iraq is no guarantee that violence inspired by the group will cease. In November, more than 300 people were murdered in a gun and bomb attack on a Sufi mosque in the northern Sinai peninsula. Those responsible were, almost certainly, an Isis affiliated group.

Finally, the close relations between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United States, and their shared enmity towards Iran, account for the tepid response in the Middle East to the announcement that the US embassy in Israel would be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The move was as unexpected as it is unhelpful and provocative. Jerusalem is not only sacred to the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims (as it is, of course, to Christians and Jews), it is central to the hopes of Palestinians for independent statehood. In “recognising” Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the US president has helped to set the scene for further instability and violence in the region in the year ahead.

Dr Vincent Durac lectures in Middle East Politics in UCD

Africa: Drought, war

Bill Corcoran in Cape Town

Africa can lay claim to many of the world’s major potential flashpoints in 2018, whether they involve political upheaval, civil unrest, terrorism, famine, drought, forced migration, or some sort of combination of the aforementioned.

The Geneva-based humanitarian think tank ACAPS (Assessment Capacities Project) released a report in late November that analysed 18 countries worldwide in which it outlined concerns around a number of African countries.

“If 2017 did not look good, predictions for 2018 are no better: violence and insecurity are likely to deteriorate in Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Libya, Ethiopia, Mali, Somalia and Syria next year,” ACAPS director Lars Peter Nissen wrote in Humanitarian Overview: An analysis of key crises into 2018.

In the DRC, for instance, there are concerns that President Joseph Kabila will try to hold on to his position in 2018, despite making a promise to hold elections late in the year. If he attempts to do so a full-scale civil war could break out.

The last major conflict in the central Africa country occurred between 1998 and 2003 and it left 5.5 million people dead.

Libya, Mali, Somalia, and northern Nigeria are all affected by Islamic extremism conducted by different groups, and the threat from these jihadists is expected to grow next year, according to ACAPS.

Despite the defeat of Isis in its main strongholds in the Middle East, the group is expected to strengthen in southern Libya, where it seeks to take advantage of resources and the instability of the state.

Isis could also strengthen its foothold in the Puntland region of Somalia. This would negatively impact the civilian population and could lead to clashes with its bigger regional rival Al Shabaab as part of a power struggle.

The withdrawal of government troops from central Mali is also expected to embolden Islamist armed groups to recruit in the region.

Somalia and northern Nigeria are also facing the risk of famine caused by drought, according to the US-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network, and they are expected to be joined by Ethiopia and South Sudan and northern Kenya.

“Many areas of the eastern Horn of Africa have experienced poor to very poor rainfall performance over the past three consecutive rainy seasons. This has already contributed to large food assistance needs in the region and extreme levels of acute food insecurity in Somalia and Ethiopia,” the organisation’s latest alert warns.

“A risk of famine persists in the region given the extended drought, heavy livestock losses, disease outbreaks, and persistent challenges with provision of life-saving humanitarian assistance, without which outcomes would likely be worse,” the alert added.

Indeed, South Sudan may be forced to cope with the triple whammy of food insecurity caused by drought, ongoing tribal unrest, and political tensions linked to forthcoming elections. If all of these adverse situations converge and peak at the same time, it will amount to a major disaster.

In terms of political upheaval, 23 countries are scheduled to hold elections in Africa in 2018, and nine of these polls will be presidential elections, which tend to be the most contentious.

Aside from the previously mentioned polls in the DRC and South Sudan, which include presidential elections, there are also major concerns around how polls in Egypt, Libya and Zimbabwe will pan out next year, given the countries’ volatile situations.

When it comes to forced migration, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees has estimated that the total resettlement needs of refugees from Africa in 2018 will be in the region of 510,000 individuals.

The vast majority of these people will come from central Africa, the Great Lakes region as well as the Horn of Africa, the organisation predicts.

Asia: Military threats

Clifford Coonan in Beijing

The sight of Kim Jong-un in a long black coat on Mount Paektu, a peak on the border with China that has sacred links to Korean mythology as well as his family’s dynastic legend, caused brows to furrow across Asia.

In a year when Kim’s nuclear programme became a genuine global threat, North Korea and China, erstwhile allies on each side of Mount Paektu, are set to be the two key countries in regional geopolitics in 2018.

Many Asian neighbours hate each other. Japan and China desperately need, but will not opt for, economic reform. Thailand is still run by a military junta, with no democracy in sight. Southeast Asia chugs along but without direction because regional pacesetter China is distracted.

Ultimately, what happens on Mount Paektu, the Zhongnanhai government complex in Beijing, and the Beltway in Washington DC, will affect the whole region next year.

Kim Jong-un is the latest product of the “Paektu Bloodline” to run the secretive Stalinist enclave that has so incensed Donald Trump – whom its propagandists label a “mentally deranged dotard”.

In North Korean propaganda, his father Kim Jong-il was born there under a double-rainbow, even though he was probably born in Siberia.

The younger Kim and his forebears tend to symbolically “climb” the 2,744-metre active volcano when they have big decisions to make.

Kim Jong-un ascended Paektu before he ordered the execution of his uncle Jang Sung-taek, using howitzers. And prior to this visit, he had just successfully tested the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the first apparently capable of reaching mainland US.

Richard McGregor, author of Asia’s Reckoning: China, Japan and the Fate of US Power in the Pacific Century, is watching to see how Kim touts progress on the Hwasong-15 that can apparently reach the US but he fears overreaction in Washington.

“Remarkably, after the Iraq War debacle, the hawks in Washington are gaining ground in making their case for military action against North Korea. It is now being seriously considered,” said McGregor.

He believes Beijing and Seoul will perhaps work together to restrain Washington, but this might require significant diplomatic initiatives of their own to make sure they succeed.

“A bellicose US will also push Seoul and Beijing closer together,” he says.

China will be more engaged in global events, economically and politically, according to Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at the centre of American studies at Renmin University in Beijing.

“China’s role on North Korea is very difficult. On the one side, Trump’s basic strategy is to threaten North Korea with military strikes and work with UN members to fully sanction North Korea, leaving China little room, and both strategies are not what China would agree with – military threats and deeper sanctions,” said Shi.

This gentle reading of how things will play out does not wash with many scholars.

Stein Ringen, author of The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century, describes the situation in North Korea as extremely dangerous and sees the broader geopolitical situation as fundamentally changed.

“As a result of the Chinese leadership’s audacious self-confidence and the collapse of political leadership in the West, we will see a more assertive China in all arenas of global politics. We are in the midst of a huge shift of power from America to China,” said Ringen.

Another potential flashpoint next year is the South China Sea. China has installed military facilities on reclaimed land in the region, which is dotted with reefs and islets, to back its territorial claims, which are disputed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam as well as the US.

Shi expects China to soften its position here and focus on repairing its relationship with other Asian countries.

The nuclear crisis makes it difficult to see beyond East Asia, but there is sure to be close international attention on Myanmar to see how the Rohingya situation develops there. Since late August, nearly 646,000 ethnic Rohingya have left Myanmar following a military crackdown.There has been strong criticism of Myanmar’s de facto leader, the once-adored Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

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