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Four key problems the EU faced in 2021

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By Aida Sanchez Alonso  & Joanna Gill
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen   -   Copyright  Credit: AP

Brexit turbulence

Almost two years after the UK left the EU and a year after the end of the transition period, things do not look good between London and Brussels. 

The year began with new red tape on certain goods entering Northern Ireland from the British mainland. 

It's all part of the Northern Ireland Protocol that London signed up to as part of the Brexit. 

It keeps Northern Ireland -- part of the UK -- in the European Union's single market for goods. Brussels wants regulatory control on what comes into the single market, so the protocol saw checks imposed on goods arriving into Northern Ireland from the British mainland.

So, to avoid a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, Brexit created a de-facto frontier in the Irish Sea.

London, despite signing up to the agreement, claims the protocol has burdened businesses with extra paperwork.

The UK wants to renegotiate the protocol, something Brussels has rejected. In late 2021, the can was kicked down the road into 2022.

Relationship with China worsens

Europe is highly dependent on the manufacturing power of China but human rights issues have soured the relationship. 

In March, the EU slapped sanctions on Chinese officials citing alleged human rights abuses against the Uyghurs in China's Xinjiang region. Retaliation was swift: China blacklisted 10 individuals, including MEPs, over the EU's decision.

By November, the EU had announced a €300 billion spending plan to help build infrastructures in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The aim is to counter Beijing’s own overseas investment scheme, The Belt and Road initiative.

But that was not the only source of tension. Ending the year on a low, Lithuania called for a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

EU-Hungary clash over LGBT rights

Hungary again clashed with the EU over LGBT rights. 

MPs passed a law in June banning the use of LGBT content in schools. The aim of the law was to fight paedophilia and protect the children, claimed the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. 

The controversy was a topic at an EU summit in June and European leaders signed a letter stating their support for the LGBT community. 

Orban did not withdraw the legislation. Instead, he said, Hungary would hold a referendum on the issue so Hungarians could decide for themselves. 

Poland's row

Along with Hungary, Poland is the other EU country at odds with Brussels. 

Brussels and Warsaw are divided over the country's democratic values, the independence of its judiciary and LGBT issues. 

Their relationship took a turn for the worse in October when Poland’s constitutional court ruled EU legislation in some cases did not have supremacy over Polish law. 

“This ruling calls into question the foundations of the European Union,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

Poland's prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, hit back. He said the constitutional court "not only fulfils all independence criteria, but it is a constitutional tribunal that stands guard of the constitution and ensures that it remains the highest law of the Republic of Poland".