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2021: Groundhog Day in a G-Zero world

Did 2021 actually happen, or are we still stuck in 2020? So many things seem to have barely changed this year. After all, we’re entering yet another holiday season worried about a fresh wave of the pandemic, and uncertain about what comes next for our economies and our politics.

In a lot of ways, the past 365 days feel like a year of unfulfilled promise. Let’s have a look back at what did, and did not happen in 2021.

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Biden & Putin will continue Ukraine talks; Germany’s new chancellor

Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden, shares his perspective from Europe:

What came out of the video conference between Presidents Biden and Putin?

Well, that's a very good question. We don't know, but they agreed to continue talking about the issues that Mr. Putin backed up by the threat of an invasion of Ukraine has put on the table. There is somewhat of a disquiet in Europe over that, but Biden has said that there's not going to be any talks about Ukraine without Ukraine at the table. This is a story that will continue for quite some time.

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Enter Olaf — can he keep Germany’s traffic light blinking?

As of this week, for the first time since Gwen Stefani was topping the charts with Hollaback Girl, Germany is not run by a person named Angela.

Olaf Scholz — the pragmatic, robotic, determined leader of the center-left SPD party — now holds the reins of Europe’s largest economy.

But he also leads a three-party coalition, the first in Germany’s modern history, with the progressively, climate conscious Greens and the business-friendly fiscal hawks of the Free Democrats party. The coalition is known as the “traffic light” owing to the colors of its three members.

Here are a few immediate and longer-term challenges for Scholz.

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What We’re Watching: Biden and Putin chat, Scholz takes the reins in Germany, Remain in Mexico returns, Pécresse enters the French fray, Suu Kyi learns her fate

World War III or nah? US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin are set to speak by phone on Tuesday, as the crisis surrounding Ukraine gets dicier by the day. Russia has massed more than 100,000 troops along its border with the country, and the US is warning that Putin is gearing up to invade soon, though the underlying intel isn’t public. No one is quite sure what Putin’s up to with this stunt. Is he trying to pressure Kyiv into moving ahead with the lopsided (but probably best possible) Minsk peace accords of 2015? Or is the Kremlin seeking a broader NATO commitment not to expand further? Or does Putin actually want to invade Ukraine? Either way, Biden has his work cut out for him. Putin is clearly more comfortable risking lives and money to preserve a sphere of influence in Ukraine than the West is, so the US president has to be careful: don’t set out any red lines that NATO isn’t willing to back, but also don’t push the situation into a broader war that no one (ideally) wants.

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What We're Watching: Angela out, omicron in

Exit Angela, enter omicron. Social Democrat Olaf Scholz will officially take over this week as German Chancellor, leading a coalition with the Greens and the business-friendly Free Democrats. His government has already laid out plans to accelerate Germany's transition to carbon neutrality, to bolster European sovereignty in the face of rising challenges from Russia and China, and to rein in fiscal spending – not only in Germany but across Europe – as the pandemic recedes. But one immediate challenge is that the pandemic isn't actually receding yet. Scholz will take office just as cases are surging. The current 7-day average of new cases in Germany is more than twice as high as the previous peak which was a year ago, before vaccines were rolled out. With the evidently more transmissible omicron variant already spreading, Scholz has said he favors making vaccines obligatory, even as blowback against mandates has been rising in Europe.

What We're Watching: Germany's next government taking shape

Who's going to run Germany? With coalition negotiations now reportedly in the home stretch, we could know what the next German government looks like as soon as Monday or Tuesday. Following elections that were held back in September, the center-left SPD, headed by Chancellor-in-waiting Olaf Scholz, has been hammering together a three-way coalition with the progressive Greens and the fiscal hawks of the Free Democrats Party. One big question mark is whether the spendthrift Greens or the tighter-pursestrings FDP will get the powerful finance ministry portfolio. Meanwhile, Green Party leader Annalena Baerbock is expected to become Germany's first female foreign minister, part of Scholz's larger pledge to ensure that the cabinet is split 50:50 between men and women.

German election outcome begins new era of three-party cooperation

Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden, shares his perspective from Europe:

What about the outcome of the German election?

Well, as expected, the Social Democrats under Olaf Scholz came out on top. They had a very credible campaign, presenting him primarily not as a Social Democrat, but as a possible successor to Angela Merkel. Then, It's going to take quite some time to form a new government and the exact outcome of that, not entirely certain.

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Looking ahead to a post-Merkel Europe

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Hi, everybody. Ian Bremmer here. Happy week to all of you and thought I'd talk a little bit about Germany and Europe. Because of course, we just had elections in Germany, 16 years of Angela Merkel's rule coming to an end - by far the strongest leader that Germany has seen post-war, Europe has seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union. And indeed in many ways, the world has seen in the 21st century. Xi Jinping, of course, runs a much bigger country and has consolidated much more power, but in terms of the free world, it's been Angela Merkel.

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