Written by Etienne Bassot,

© Daniel Schludi on Unsplash; JFL Photography, 1STunningART, gustavofrazao, stasnds, Inna, Björn Wylezich, Olena, muratart, Premium Collection, and max dallocco on ©Adobe Stock; Wikimedia Commons | US Embassy Tel Aviv Creative Commons license

The year ahead of us is critical in many ways: 2021 is the first year of recovery after the coronavirus pandemic hit the world in 2020. In the five-year European political cycle, it is a year in which progress towards significant action and implementation are expected, after a first year generally more focused on declarations and planning. And global events and geopolitical tensions make it no less critical at international level.

To help us to understand Europe and the world at such a critical time, the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) has asked a dozen of its policy analysts to identify ten issues to watch in 2021, explaining why they matter and what we might expect in the year to come. With so many burning issues at stake in Europe and in the world, a selection of just ten is by definition subjective. Yet, it is the opportunity to place the spotlight on a series of topics selected for their obvious importance or original relevance.

This publication covers a broad spectrum of areas, most of which are affected directly or indirectly by the current coronavirus pandemic, reflecting how the crisis has impacted our lives and societies in nearly all their economic, social and cultural dimensions. The ten topics chosen include both issues that are at the very heart of the crisis – the vaccine race and economic recovery – and those that are starkly highlighted by it – such as access to food, discrimination, and the state of the performing arts – as well as some of the big background changes shaping the world we live in today – the digital, environmental and geo-political challenges ahead, from Europe’s borders to its transatlantic relationship. These ten issues echo some of the ten opportunities spotted for Europe post-coronavirus in our July 2020 publication exploring potential opportunities that the crisis might offer to improve policy for the future.

The central nature of the coronavirus crisis and its overall impact in terms of global responsibility, from vaccines for all to the climate objective, have logically inspired the written contributions as well as the visual representation of the ten issues on the cover of this publication.

In parallel with these issues, 2021 is also likely to be a year of profound reflection on the EU’s future through the Conference on the Future of Europe. The President of the European Commission launched the idea of a structured discussion through such a conference in her pre-election statement to the European Parliament in July 2019, encouraging the involvement of both European citizens and their elected representatives as part of a broader renewed impulse of European democracy. This idea was promptly endorsed by the Parliament, which made very precise and ambitious suggestions on the purpose, scope and composition of the conference in its resolution of 15 January 2020. The Commission went on to present its own somewhat less ‘ambitious’ vision, nevertheless largely converging with that of the Parliament. The Council too, while stressing the importance of the implementation of its Strategic Agenda and the respect of the institutions’ prerogatives, later joined the Parliament and the Commission in endorsing the involvement of national parliaments, citizens and civil society. Whilst the coronavirus crisis has delayed the signing of a joint declaration by the three institutions − after which the Conference may start − agreement seems to be close, even if the sensitive question of the Conference’s chair remains open.

At the start of this critical year, we hope that you will enjoy reading this latest edition of ‘Ten Issues to Watch’ and that it will stimulate you to reflection, and ignite your curiosity as you explore the challenges and opportunities of 2021.

Read the complete in-depth analysis on ‘Ten issues to watch in 2021‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.