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Watch List 2019

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Crisis Group’s early-warning Watch List identifies up to ten countries and regions at risk of conflict or escalation of violence. In these situations, early action, driven or supported by the EU and its member states, could generate stronger prospects for peace. It includes a global overview, regional summaries, and detailed analysis on select countries and conflicts.

The Watch List 2019 includes Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Iran, Myanmar, Pakistan, South Sudan, Tunisia, Ukraine, Venezuela and Yemen.

Global Overview

The world order, or what remains of it, is undergoing a changing of the guard amid another changing of the guard, and Europe is caught in the middle of both. The first makeover is taking place at the international level, a function of the U.S.’s relative decline, China’s ascent, Russia’s restless resurgence, broad disaffection with global institutions and norms, and the overall fluidity of relations among greater and lesser powers. The second is happening at the national level, where popular estrangement from the ruling elite, fear of the other and a nebulous longing for authoritarian leaders have empowered a generation of politicians adept at railing against an economic system they have no intention of overturning.

Of course, for many across the world, an old order that at best delivered unevenly and at worst not at all, is not something over which to shed tears. But a changeover without handrails, one that unleashes an unconstrained scramble for power and influence and invites all manner of populist or nationalist responses, cannot but be hazardous.

For Europe, and especially the EU, the twin tectonic shifts hit particularly hard. European security depends on an alliance with the U.S. about which the most one can say is that it is still standing, but barely. The catalogue of indignities suffered by the EU grows daily. They range from Washington’s renunciation of the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal, and now the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, to the imposition of punitive tariffs, to President Trump’s labeling the EU a “foe”. The U.S. president’s surprise announcement of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria has become a metaphor for that wobbly relationship. Not so much because of its substance: most Europeans figured that day would come sooner or later. But because of its manner: although both France and the UK sent forces to Syria’s north east at Washington’s request and suffered casualties while engaged in a common pursuit, they were informed of the decision after President Erdoğan of Turkey. After Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel. Indeed, after the media itself.

Europeans fret about the next shoe – or, more accurately, next tweet – to drop. Their worried eyes are on NATO in particular. There are many reasons to doubt Trump will go as far as to withdraw from the alliance. He probably won’t. Then again: the most reliable predictor of the U.S. president’s moves are not his policy pronouncements (often barely intelligible), even less those of his advisors, often only bearing faint connection to the desires of their boss. The most dependable predictor are the president’s instincts, repeatedly expressed in unguarded moments. From those, his longstanding aversion toward NATO comes through loud and blindingly clear.

The revitalisation of great power competition – between the U.S. and China and between the U.S. and Russia – further complicates Europe’s challenge. As the alliance with Washington frays, Beijing and Moscow sense opportunity. They target Europe – with sundry forms of meddling to undermine or divide the EU on one hand, thinly veiled entreaties to come to their side on the other. Under normal circumstances, this would be a moment for the U.S. and EU to join forces and push back against Russian interference or unfair Chinese trade practices, but circumstances are anything but normal. Which leaves Europe caught between an ally upon which it cannot rely and two major powers it cannot ignore.

That’s only half the story. Developments in individual European countries follow their own specific dynamic but share a common thread. Frustrated with the status quo and its standard bearers, angered by the inequitable concentration of wealth, convinced that the system is rigged against them, people long for answers. Instead, populist leaders offer them scapegoats: minorities, migrants, the courts, the media, the EU itself. Anti-immigrant, anti-globalisation, and Euroscepticism all are consequences, as is the allure of illiberalism and a vague yearning among some for more authoritarian leadership; far-right parties will seek to exploit such sentiments next May in the European Parliament elections. That, in all likelihood, voters will be disappointed tomorrow by what such parties are offering them today is cause for some optimism. But it may take a while, and the damage wrought in the meantime – European divisions; a greater inward focus; and a resulting European inability to pull its weight on global affairs – could be great.

The impact is clear from Brexit to Italy, Hungary and Poland. One sees it, too, in France, the latest such manifestation and, because President Macron aspired to use his voice to defend multilateralism and strike back against nativism, one of the gravest. The phenomenon of the gillets jaunes – leaderless, ideologically scattered, unmoored from any party or trade union – is of a piece with so much that has been happening, in Europe and elsewhere. In a sense, the crisis Macron faces is the flip side of what enabled his ascent: having benefited from (and contributed to) the delegitimisation of traditional political parties and social mediators, he finds himself confronting the very popular mood that helped him rise to power but bereft of the necessary allies to effectively address it.

The tragedy for the EU, in sum, is to have reached the moment of its greatest utility just as it reached the moment of its grimmest crisis.

And still. Despite its internal challenges, and because of the external ones, there remains much the EU can and ought to do, as the pages that follow illustrate. In an era of growing geopolitical tensions and fading U.S. reliability, Europe can serve as a political mediator of sorts: siding with Ukraine on fundamental questions of sovereignty, but encouraging dialogue between Moscow and Kyiv to avoid a dangerous escalation in the Sea of Azov or Ukraine’s east. Striving to preserve the nuclear deal with Iran, while pressing Tehran to de-escalate regional tensions. Being clear about President Maduro’s responsibility in his country’s current crisis, yet also setting up an inclusive Contact Group that comprises governments friendly to Caracas. Taking advantage of its ties to all stakeholders in Yemen, Iran and the Huthi rebels included, to fortify the ceasefire around the port city of Hodeida and move toward a more comprehensive deal. And, throughout, resisting the urge to look inwards, by continuing to provide critical humanitarian aid to civilians bearing the brunt of violence or displaced by crisis.

There is recent precedent. Last year, Europe’s efforts contributed to halting Rohingya refugees’ forced return to Myanmar; coordinated pressure from Europe, the U.S. and Turkey played a part in averting a feared Russian-backed reconquest of Idlib in Syria; and normalisation of relations both between Serbia and Kosovo and among Western Balkans’ states continues to be driven by Brussels.

There are no indispensable nations, and the use of that term by Americans to describe their own country was always both unnecessarily pretentious and excessively patronising. But there are times when it is harder to dispense with some countries than at others. When it comes to the EU and its member states, today is one such time. It is a burden that, for all their flaws and faults, we should hope they shoulder.