2019: An unpredictable, confrontational and financially ominous year

President Donald Trump is joined by legislators, members of his Cabinet and guests, on Wednesday, December 12, 2018, as he signs a Presidential Executive Order. He has been running the country with executive orders, signing more of them in two years than all other presidents in their entire term. (Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour)

The global outlook for 2019 was already looking unpredictable and dangerously confrontational, but the firing of US Defense Secretary, the moderate retired general Jim Mattis makes it exponentially more so. During the past few months ‘America first’ President Donald Trump has dismissed all the top three reasonable American policy makers. First it was the State Department Secretary Rex Tillerson, then the top White House Security Adviser Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster and now Mattis.

Their job was to soothe primarily the European allies, after Trump’s repeated attacks against NATO and the European Union. We should add to that the White House’s trade wars and the Brexit deadlock; two threats which may act as catalyst agents for the long brewing next financial meltdown.

Exclusive ruler

Then comes Trump who now exclusively assumes the US foreign and defense policy making. In the latest incident after the Mattis dismissal, last week Trump, entirely on his own, decided to briefly withdraw all the American forces from Syria.

In this way he leaves the Syrian field open for the other strong players to continue their destructive action. The Russian President Vladimir Putin supporting the Damascus despot Bashar al Assad and the Turkish ruler Tayypp Erdogan will keep the war fires burning in the soft underbelly of Europe. It’s very difficult for the astounded Europeans, mainly the French and the British, and, to a lesser degree, the Germans, to cover the gap left by Washington. It was not only the Europeans who were taken aback by the latest impulsive Trump move.

The Middle East vacuum

The Israeli government is also astonished seeing its closest ally to abandon the Syrian conundrum, before anything close to a political solution being achieved. The news struck while a three nation summit was hosted in Israel by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He and the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras plus the Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades were discussing the last details on the East Med natural gas pipeline grandiose project, when the White House changed the map of the Middle East by withdrawing the American factor.

All three of them expressed their dismay on this unbelievable Washington retreat from a key position on the Middle East map. The accomplishment of East Med gas pipeline venture badly needs the energetic American presence in the region. The East Med underwater pipe is supposed to transport the Israeli and Cypriot natural gas to Europe, through a gas pipeline to be laid on the bottom of Mediterranean Sea.

It bypasses Turkey and surfaces in Greece and then to the EU. Both the Turkish Sultan Tayyip Erdogan and the Russian ruler Vladimir Putin hate to see this project being built. Now, the American withdrawal from Syria makes the construction of the East Med pipe even more difficult.

Trump’s foreign policy

Whatever the reasons behind this new Trump foreign policy shock, the rest of the world reads it at face value in evaluating the repercussions. Undeniably, this is a proof for the American indifference about what is not directly related – myopically in the shortest time term and in the narrowest sense – to their national interests. It’s a clear sign for the return to American isolationism, despite the fact that it will be mainly US companies to pump up the East Med natural gas. However, the US anorexia for Syria is an old issue.

Already, the Obama administration had difficulties in engaging American forces there. Now, however, Trump tells the European ‘allies’, you are alone in confronting Putin’s and Erdogan’s machinations in the Middle East. Paris, London and Berlin have reacted furiously against this new Trump decision. During the past many months, Mattis had traveled many times to Europe to repair what Trump had intentionally damaged, but the retired marine general is not there anymore.

Europe tested

On more than one occasion the ex Defense Secretary had reassured the Europeans about America’s full engagement in the Old Continent. Obviously, this reassurance evaporates with his dismissal. Even worse, it was due to this reassurance, that Trump axed the general. So, the New Year 2019 will test Europe’s ability to show the world she can cater for herself on the wider global arena.

This brings us to the European Union’s proper problems, the most urgent of which is the prospect of a wild Brexit. As for the Italian ‘revolt’ it seems Rome and Brussels have found a ‘modus vivendi’ offering each other reciprocal concessions.

A wild divorce

In detail, the plan for a soft Brexit deal, as agreed between Prime Minister Theresa May and the rest of the EU leaders, doesn’t stand a chance in the British Parliament. The vote has being set for 14 January, with the Northern Ireland ‘backstop’ always jamming its ratification.

The majority of the UK parliamentarians have loudly denounced it. For this and other reasons the major opposition Labor Party not only rejects May’s Brexit plan but tells her to demission. According to the ‘backstop’, Northern Ireland, a constituent part of the UK, remains in EU’s custom Union, possibly indefinitely. In this case, NI will be cut off from the rest of Britain trade wise, and a customs border has to be enacted in the middle of the Irish Sea.

Brexit chaos

With May’s Brexit plan off the table, the next option is a no deal divorce. As for the other two possible solutions – which are a second referendum or an extension or a full revocation of the Article 50 notice to leave the EU on 29 March 2019 – they have been both excluded by May. Still the 27 EU leaders have said they will accept a possible date extension or a full revocation of Brexit. Unfortunately, as things stand now a no deal Brexit becomes every day more likely.

For this reason, both the European Commission and the British government prepare for such a dreadful option, because no deal exit means there will be no transition period. So on 23.00 GMT of 29 March Britain will be cut off from the EU. This will affect trade, financial transactions and people. Brussels have set up a contingency plan to confront short term problems in air traffic, financial dealings, trade and travel. Even animal products from Britain will be controlled on EU borders right from the next minute.

Preparing for the worst

By the same token, the British government is preparing for a no deal Brexit. The minister for Finance Philip Hammond has allocated more money to the public authorities mixed up in Brexit. It’s the ministry of Interior, the tax authority, the environment, fisheries and food departments which will be confronted with handling infinitely more checks and controls. Last Wednesday, Britain rushed to tighten up the controls on incoming EU travelers.

Returning to the bigger picture, a no deal Brexit will greatly weaken the West altogether. With Trump being increasingly unpredictable and isolationist, the western alliance will be thoroughly undermined. Obviously the US, Britain and the European powers from now on will be following different agendas at home and abroad. So, the next global crisis in whatever nature it may surface will surprise a deeply divided West.

For one thing, the International Monetary Fund is being warning for an imminent financial crisis so loudly, as to actually look like preparing the next meltdown. So, in the year 2019, nasty global surprises may be the order of the day and the Western world is to face them with diverging, if not contradicting agendas. Surely, this prospect will make the damage inventory unbearable for the many.

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