The start of a new year is a time when many of us reflect on the past year, and prepare for the year ahead. The same holds true for institutions such as the European Union. This article will provide an overview of salient issues the EU has been involved in throughout 2021, and the struggles it may face in 2022.


A discussion of the challenges of 2021 must, of course, include some mention of the COVID-19 pandemic. The EU has met (and gone beyond) it’s 2021 goal to distribute 250 million vaccine doses.[1] In total, it exported more than 1.1 billion doses to more than 60 countries.[2]

Throughout the past year there have also been a number of national crises involving countries such as Belarus, Ukraine, Venezuela and so on. However, in attempting to address these issues the EU has also “weakened [their] capacity to address transversal, longer-term issues that should be at the centre of [their] foreign policy, such as revitalising multilateralism, or handling migration in a balanced way, or the energy and climate crises or the rules for the digital transition”.[3]

2021 also saw the presentation of the Strategic Compass to Member States, which aims to improve the EU’s ability to provide security and defence for its citizens.[4] In more specific terms, it aims to

“[provide] a shared assessment of our strategic environment, the threats and challenges we face and their implications for the EU; [bring] greater coherence and a common sense of purpose to actions in the area of security and defence that are already underway; [set] out new ways and means to improve our collective ability to defend the security of our citizens and our Union; [and set] clear targets and milestones to measure our progress”.[5]

It is set to be adopted in March 2022.

COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference, also took place in 2021. This has left some hopeful, but the conference has also been criticised for not being an effective measure in light of what its predecessor, COP25, failed to achieve. At COP26, countries that rely heavily on coal did not commit to calls for a “phase-down” of coal use, and funding for climate finance and adaptation in developing countries remains woefully low.[6] On a positive note, countries did agree to create “new, more ambitious targets to curb emissions” in 2022, the Glasgow Climate Pact contained “language supporting a “phase-down of unabated coal power””, and more than 130 countries promised to stop and reverse deforestation by 2030.[7]

This past year also included the renewal and improvement of relations between the EU and some countries. EU-US relations were relaunched, and interactions between the EU and Latin America increased, and the creation of the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy hopes to “[promote] EU’s engagement in the region to not only boost trade and investment, but also to cooperate more on security issues”.[8]


As the COVID-19 pandemic has no end in sight, this will remain a challenge for the European Union going forward. Also pressing is continued vaccine inequity in many parts of the world, most prevalently Africa where only 8% of the population has been fully vaccinated.[9] In addition, the pandemic has increased global inequity in general, with developing countries experiencing increasing rates of hunger and poverty.[10] The EU is faced with repelling this trend in the year ahead, and must do more to combat general inequality and vaccine inequity.

There also seems to be more support from Member States for encouraging more public investment this year, and a summit in March 2022 will demonstrate these attitudes. This summit is expected to deal with proposals such as the introduction of “a minimum wage in all EU countries, fairer corporate taxation, tougher trade and investment rules and a more proactive role for the EU in promoting European champions in key technologies”.[11]

Some Member States, e.g. Germany and France, have also clarified that they will be less lenient towards violators of the EU rule of law, notable examples being Poland and Hungary. This support may enable the European Commission to more effectively “use its leverage to press for compliance with rulings of the Court of Justice of the European Union, by continuing to hold back recovery funds from Warsaw and Budapest”.[12]

Overall, if the EU does not act in the face of the aforementioned challenges, there is the risk of their “ever-diminishing status on the world stage for the unity project that grew out of decades of war and division”.[13] How the EU approaches these future challenges remains to be seen.


[1] European Union External Action Service, ‘2021 in review: A year of transitions’ (27 December 2021) <> accessed 2 Jan 2022

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] European Union External Action Service, ‘Towards a Strategic Compass’ (n.d.) <> accessed 2 Jan 2022

[5] Ibid

[6] Hill, A. C., ‘What COP26 Did and Didn’t Accomplish’ (15 November 2021) Council on Foreign Nations. <> accessed 29 December 2021

[7] Ibid

[8] European Union External Action Service, ‘2021 in review: A year of transitions’ (27 December 2021) <> accessed 2 Jan 2022

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[11] Taylor, P., ‘5 reasons for the EU to be hopeful in 2022’ (30 December 2021) POLITICO <> accessed 2 Jan 2022

[12] Ibid

[13] McGee L., ‘2022 could be a make-or-break year for Europe’ (2 January 2022) CNN <> accessed 2 Jan 2022