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It’s going to be a big year for…

Welcome to 2023, the year of war, peace and Mark Zuckerberg’s collapsing Metaverse

Image: The New European


John Hume, the political Titan who “kept hope alive” during Northern Ireland’s darkest hours, did not live to see the 25th anniversary of the peace agreement he worked so hard to deliver, but the Nobel prize-winner’s legacy will be celebrated in his home city of Derry in the weeks before the April 10 commemoration of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement.

A musical drama, Beyond Belief, will celebrate Hume’s work. He helped to persuade the republican IRA to give up its armed struggle, setting the stage for the talks that eventually led to the 1998 signing of the GFA, which largely ended three decades of bloodshed.

Today, a seemingly intractable post-Brexit political stalemate has put the brakes on Northern Ireland’s development. Hume, who died in 2020, suffered from dementia in his final years and was not aware that the UK had left the European Union. Northern Ireland, however, in effect stayed in the EU’s single market to avoid a hard border with Ireland. The unionist DUP, despite backing Brexit, has pulled out of the power-sharing assembly in protest at the new trading arrangements. The prime minister, Rishi Sunak, says he hopes to break the impasse, which has poisoned relations with the EU, before the April anniversary.


If Sunak is looking for a karaoke song for his end-of-year “work meetings”, he could do worse than Édith Piaf’s Non, je ne regrette rien. After all, he told business leaders that he voted for Brexit, believes in Brexit, and can see Brexit already delivering enormous benefits. In 2023, Sunak and other Brexiteer Tories will struggle to keep singing the same tired song because Bregret is taking a firm hold of the British public as the costs of Brexit mount. In November, a YouGov survey showed only 32% believed it was right to leave the EU, while 56% thought it was wrong. The facts are indisputable: growth is down, trade is anaemic, businesses are failing, there are labour shortages and rising unemployment, and prices are soaring. And while politicians continue to blame the war in Ukraine and the fallout from Covid, Britain is clearly suffering more than its peers. The OECD says the UK will be the second-weakest performer in the G20 in 2023, just above sanctioned Russia. The question is whether Bregret will break through the Tories’ haze of self-delusion, or whether the Labour Party will realise it’s time to change the Brexit tune ahead of an election sometime in 2024.


Known as “Florence on the Elbe” before its near-destruction during the second world war, Dresden is a city that embodies rebirth and today, it is again a Baroque beauty brimming with art and culture. In 1945, allied forces reduced Dresden to rubble and killed around 25,000 people, but the city rose from the ashes over the years, with a particular focus on restoring the Baroque churches and buildings, like the Zwinger museum complex, in the old city. Reconstruction intensified after German reunification. For example, the ruins of Germany’s largest Protestant church, the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady), were kept as a memorial until the 1990s when the painstaking work of rebuilding began. The restored church was topped with a cross donated by Britain and created by a team that included a goldsmith whose father had taken part in the air raids.

Now, the capital of Saxony has been named by Lonely Planet as one of the top destinations for 2023. Dubbed the “city of awakening”, it is listed in the “Learn” category alongside New Mexico, Manchester, Marseille, El Salvador and southern Scotland. And if you tire of Dresden’s beautiful buildings, you can always escape to the nearby valleys and waterfalls of the Saxon Switzerland National Park.


Even as Egypt’s authoritarian government sought to burnish its international credentials by hosting the Cop27 climate talks, it could not greenwash away the plight of the jailed British-Egyptian democracy activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah.

El-Fattah, a figurehead of the 2011 Tahrir Square revolution, has spent most of the past decade in jail. The 41-year-old was sentenced to a further five years in December 2021 for sharing a social media post about torture. As the Cop27 delegates gathered, el-Fattah was on a six-month hunger strike that he only ended as the climate talks finished (amid reports he had been force-fed). There are at least 65,000 political prisoners in Egypt, where President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has crushed dissent since he seized power from the Islamist Mohamed Mursi in a 2013 coup.

Rishi Sunak said he raised el-Fattah’s case with Sisi during his trip to Cop27 and promised to keep demanding his release, but there is little sign of clemency. Separately, the British government has also been urged to advocate for the release of Salma al-Shehab, a Saudi mother-of-two who was studying for her PhD at Leeds University and who has been jailed for 34 years in Saudi Arabia for using Twitter and retweeting activists.


Former health secretary Matt Hancock may have sought absolution with a short, lucrative stint in a supervised jungle, but the real reckoning for his failings, and those of the government which he was part of during the Covid pandemic, continues. The second stage of an independent public inquiry started at the end of October and the investigations will run into next year. The inquiry plans to examine former prime minister Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages – as well as thousands of other documents – to search for any “plainly wrongful decision-making and significant errors of judgment” in the early stages of the pandemic. It will also look at whether late lockdowns cost lives and whether official rule-breaking – like Hancock’s breaching of social distancing rules by having an affair – undermined public confidence. Ministers and other witnesses will be called to give evidence over eight weeks next summer. In November, the inquiry, which is led by crossbench peer Lady Hallett, also launched an online form to allow people to share their pandemic experiences anonymously. The responses gathered will be reviewed and analytical reports summarising these contributions will be used as evidence. More than 180,000 people are known to have died from Covid in the UK.


Photo: Getty images

For a diplomat, 75-year-old Josep Borrell can be very undiplomatic. The EU’s foreign policy chief was accused of racism in October after he described Europe as a garden under threat from the “jungle” that is the rest of the world. Borrell issued an apology of sorts, but insisted that in a disorderly world, Europe was a place of calm. Borrell also raised eyebrows when he publicly dressed down his own ambassadors for failing to be sufficiently informed or informative. Borrell will probably have more opportunities to speak bluntly next year as threats to the European “garden” persist. The war in Ukraine is likely to continue even as tensions mount between Turkey and Greece in the south, and rows over everything from Russian sanctions to migrants push EU members further apart. The problem for Borrell – previously the leader of the Spanish Socialist Party and that country’s foreign minister – is that although he has a title and a department (the European External Action Service), it is not yet clear whether the EU as a bloc has a welldefined foreign policy, or whether Borrell will be able to transcend the demands of individual nation states to craft one. But if Europe truly wants to be a global player, he will have to try.


Covid lockdowns hit tourism hard and, to boost the battered industry, the European Union is building a network of “capitals of smart tourism” to promote sustainability and tech innovations. In 2023, Paphos in south-west Cyprus and Seville in Spain joined the group – a distinction reserved for cities that have taken a pioneering approach to accessibility, digitalisation, sustainability and cultural heritage, as well as creativity.

In Paphos, a Unesco world heritage site and legendary birthplace of Aphrodite, tourists can download an app to bring history to life. You can point your phone to different locations on the beach, for example, and see Aphrodite rising from the waves or relaxing on the rocks. The city is also planning to convert static signs to interactive ones, with audio guides, videos and photos.

In Seville, where stunning Moorish architecture, a Gothic cathedral and the Alcázar attract millions of visitors each year, tourists can download the Seville Accessible App to find out the best ways to get around. The city, which has suffered under rising temperatures caused by climate change, has also been recognised for its vision to become climate neutral by 2030. Traditional architecture, plants and water features are being harnessed to battle the soaring temperatures, and 264 public buildings have been converted into smart and energy-sustainable structures.


The next big thing or a colossal waste of time and money? For many companies, the jury may still be out on the metaverse – and who can forget Iceland’s inspired takedown of Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse launch in 2021. But Tuvalu has a unique, and bleak, use for the immersive 3D experience that uses augmented or virtual reality to help users interact; the tiny Pacific island nation plans to build a digital version of itself in the online realm to preserve its landmarks, history and culture as rising seas threaten to wipe it off the map. It’s a worthy, if depressing, use of what some call the next gen of the internet.

From business schools to luxury brands touting virtual goods, it seems the potential uses of the metaverse are limitless; management consultancy McKinsey estimates the metaverse will generate up to $5tn (£4.1tn) in value by 2030 and companies are spending millions on marketing in virtual worlds. But for now, it is not clear exactly where that value resides. Zuckerberg’s Meta lost more than 70% of its value this year and sales declined at its “Reality Labs” division tanked – responsible for metaverse investments. One thing’s for sure, though, some of the world’s brightest minds will be working to maximise the earning potential of this virtual alternative in 2023 – if only to escape the mess we’ve made of the world IRL.


In April, India will surpass China as the world’s most populous country, with more than 1.43 billion people. China will retain its place as an economic giant, but its population will soon start contracting, and the proportion of older people will rise, meaning there will be fewer workers to support more retirees. India will be keen to capitalise on any Chinese slowdown, while managing its own demographic dividend by finding jobs for the growing number of young people. In September, India became the world’s fifth-largest economy, displacing the UK, growing at nearly 7% in 2022. India now holds the G20 presidency and, with one eye on elections in 2024, the prime minister, Narendra Modi, will be keen to extend his country’s global influence. The times may favour him: India is wellplaced to leverage its historic ties with Russia and its relationship with the West to perhaps mediate in the Ukraine war. Modi has not condemned Putin’s invasion directly, but he has insisted that now is not the time for conflict. Modi, whose Hindu nationalist BJP party has been accused of discrimination against minority groups at home, says he wants India’s G20 presidency to be “inclusive, ambitious, decisive, and action-oriented”. The words of a leader who reckons his time has arrived?


General Valeriy Zaluzhnyy, the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, is happy to let his boss, Volodymyr Zelensky, be the public face of his country’s resistance to the Russian invasion. But Zaluzhnyy is the man behind the strategic thinking and preparation that has seen Ukraine’s forces hold back Vladimir Putin’s soldiers, defying the expectations of those who thought the Russians would easily overpower their smaller neighbour when they invaded in February 2022.

Zaluzhnyy and his fellow generals had been preparing for a war with Russia since the latter annexed Crimea in 2014. Afterwards, the Ukrainians took western advice and created small forces that could maintain a level of quality as they expanded. Zaluzhnyy, who was appointed commander-in-chief in July 2021, represents a new breed of Ukrainian officers, who have broken with the rigidity of Soviet-era military practices.

Time magazine named Zaluzhnyy as one of the 100 most influential people in 2022.

General Mark Milley, the US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in Time: “His work will be remembered by history.” As we approach the one-year anniversary of the start of the war, Zaluzhnyy will have to keep his forces motivated as the conflict grinds into another year.

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