Ten Foreign Policy Trends for 2017

Here are our ten trends (plus one bonus) that will define European foreign policy in 2017

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Last year, we began the year with a lot of hubris by predicting 13 trends that would define European foreign policy in 2016.  We ended the year with a small dose of humility and even more self-deception by grading ourselves and deciding that getting 7.5 right out of 13 wasn’t all that bad.  With the New Year, we have reset the calendar and our sense of hubris.  So here are our ten trends (plus one bonus) that will define European foreign policy in 2017:


1.     Elections dominate European foreign policy

Europe and European foreign policy will be overwhelmed by elections.  It is not that there will be more elections in 2017 than usual.  With 28 member states and 4-5 year parliamentary terms, every year will have 7-9 national elections on average.  But 2017 will see key elections in France, Germany, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, all of which could usher in yet another unexpected populist victory.  There may also be an election in Italy, where a victory by the Five Star Movement could presage a referendum on the euro and possibly a financial crisis.   

But the biggest story will be the French election and the possibility that Marine Le Pen might become President of France.  It seems unlikely at the moment, but everyone is too chastened by recent predictive failures in the United States and the United Kingdom to feel confident. If Le Pen were elected, it would be a bigger crisis for the EU than Brexit, and indeed probably doom the EU to geopolitical irrelevance. 

To a surprising degree, the elections themselves will focus on foreign policy issues, particularly immigration, terrorism, and trade and will thus have a large impact on European foreign policy.  And regardless of their outcome, we can be fairly confident any call for foreign policy activism on the part of Europe in 2017 will be met with pleas to wait until the next election passes.


2.     Russia’s triumphant return to the West

2017 will also mark the beginning of Russia triumphant return to the West, or perhaps the West’s return to Russia depending on your perspective.  In any case, aided in part by Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin will rejoin the clubs that rule the world, beginning at least symbolically with his attendance at the G-7 meeting in Sicily at the end of May. This moment will mark the beginning of the end of the transatlantic consensus holding together the sanctions regime against Russia.


3.     Strange bedfellows defend the world order

In the face of U.S. President Donald Trump’s effort to redefine the world order, a strange alliance will emerge between Europe and China to defend the parts of that order that matter to both of them. 

This implies specifically a Sino-European effort to defend the global free trading system and the WTO, and to maintain the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.  This alliance will start to come into focus when Chinese President Xi Jinping gives a globalist-oriented speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, just as Trump delivers an “America First” themed inauguration address in Washington.    


4.     The Syrian Civil War fails to end

The idea that the Syrian Civil War would rage on has been conventional wisdom for most of the last five years. But now there is a widespread assumption that the Russian-Iranian-Syrian capture of Aleppo means that the war is entering its final phases and that the opposition will be militarily eliminated fairly soon.

However, victory in Aleppo will not translate in political victory in 2017 as the Syrian civil war will likely move into an insurgency phase (although conventional military operations will also continue against the rebels in Idlib and against ISIS in general). As this insurgency grinds on, Russians will begin to tire of the slow trickle of casualties amongst their soldiers (and even their diplomatic corps).  They will become even sicker of dealing with Assad and his incessant demands for total victory.


5.     The EU-Turkey refugee deal holds

The Turkey refugee deal is already tattered and abused by all sides. Various Europeans and Turks have called it inadequate or even immoral. It will receive further blows in many of the election campaigns in 2017, in which various populist parties will deride it as a sell-out to Turkey and the result of Europe’s failure to defend its borders. 

Nonetheless, the deal will manage to stagger along into 2018 because it is so important to both the German and Turkish governments.  The German government believes it needs the deal to hold back another wave of refugees.  Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for his part, is definitely ambivalent about the EU. But he can ill afford to close off the possibility of visa free travel to Europe for the Turkish middle classes if he wants secure the constitutional changes necessary to establish an executive presidency in Turkey.


6.     The US abandons the Iran deal while the EU struggles to maintain it

The Americans will abandon the Iran deal, if not formally than de facto by passing new sanctions or by reneging on the sanctions relief that was promised to Iran under the deal.  But Europeans will work to maintain the core of the deal.  They may even begin a battle with the United States over secondary sanctions that the US tries to impose on European banks and companies and banks.  In that case, we might find a return to the 1990s Helms-Burton era when infighting and contradictions defined Western policy towards Iran.


7.     Brexit negotiations go nowhere

2016 changed almost everything, except how the UK and European governments are thinking about Brexit.  On the British side, Theresa May’s government acts as if the only variable that has changed in the international order is Britain leaving the EU. Her focus therefore is on keeping the conservative party united and extracting marginal advantages for the UK from the negotiations, with little thought of how this might affect – or be affected by – the unravelling of the wider global order.

Similarly on the EU side, the big fear is that Brexit will cause a domino effect of demands for special deals from the EU.  And so we get the deadly syllogism that a club has rules and benefits, that you only get benefits when you follow the rules, and that it therefore has to be worse to be outside the club than inside.  As in the Greek crisis, this attitude makes the EU extremely hardline in its negotiations.  In this context, the recent demand that Britain pay a 60 billion euro “exit charge” is not just an opening bid but an offer that will actually get worse if not accepted. 

Many on the British side don’t believe that that the EU will take this approach and so negotiations are unlikely to progress in 2017.  The longer term danger is a non-negotiated Brexit.  But for now, we can safely predict that we will also make this prediction next year.


8.     The marginalization of the EU Periphery

The core of the EU and the Eurozone will be devising new ways to keep the Union and the euro alive in 2017, or will be transfixed with elections.  Meanwhile, the periphery of the EU, particularly the new Eastern European member states, will be drifting toward marginalization and forced to deal with their challenges alone.  This will mean for a lot of them, such as Bulgaria or Greece, that the outer EU border will be their responsibility and that they will have to deal with arising concerns like refugees or a Russia-Turkey rapprochement without a lot of help from their partners in the EU core.


9.     Europe finally gets serious about defence

It seems utopian to say it after so many false starts, but 2017 may be the year that Europe finally gets serious about providing for its own defence. The case for a more concerted approach, always strong, has become almost irrefutable with the return of Russian aggression and the likely disengagement of Trump’s America. 

One can already see various indications of this trend as more countries are spending the 2% of GDP on defense that they long committed to. In March, some 12-15 EU countries will launch a formal program of “Permanent Structured Cooperation” as allowed for under the EU treaty. They will set targets for how much they have to spend together and establish common projects.  The hope is that the US and NATO will welcome this EU effort, with Trump likely use to the opportunity to boast of his victory in getting others to pay their share.


10.     The end of the two state solution

2017 will also likely see the end of the idea of a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The two-state solution has been limping along for a while, but it is now very clear that the Israeli government is not committed to it any more and the Palestinians are not capable of forcing the issue. It is similarly very clear that no outside power—the United States, the Europeans, or the Arab states–is willing to do what it would take to move forward on it.

This is not news, but until now the lack of an alternative has meant that everyone pretends that the two state solutions still applies. In 2017, that will end.  The main spur will be the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem and the general change in the US government tone toward the Israeli government, which will become essentially “do whatever you want.” It might surprise a lot of people in Europe to hear that this wasn’t already the case, but they will soon come to appreciate the difference.


Bonus Trend:    Europe gains leverage from Trump’s European business interests

The intermingling of Trump’s business interests and US foreign policy is assumed to be bad for Europe and the world. But it might end up being a source of untapped leverage for Europeans. As the Russian and Chinese seem to have already discovered, Trump organization investments seem to be more important to Trump than any given foreign policy outcome.  In 2017, Europeans will figure this out and  start gaining leverage from Trump’s investments in Europe, essentially weaponizing golf courses such as Turnberry in Scotland.



So those are our predictions for 2017.  We’d like to thank some of our colleagues, particularly Manuel Lafont Rapnouil and Vessela Tcherneva, for their help in making this list.  But the responsibility remains ours. Our final prediction is that we will be wrong on many of these.  Since our colleagues insist on holding our feet to the fire, we anticipate another humiliating accountability exercise at the end of the year.  But in the meantime, we are accepting wagers on any these trends – but only in depreciating currencies… 

Check out all trends and predictions since 2016 with this interactive tool.​

This article is part of the Rethink: Europe project, an initiative of ECFR, supported by Stiftung Mercator, offering spaces to think through and discuss Europe’s strategic challenges.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Research Director
Director, US Programme

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