The immense geopolitical challenges facing the EU’s next leaders

The European Union must redefine its role on the continent and further afield

July 04, 2019
Photo: Kay Nietfeld/DPA/PA Images
Photo: Kay Nietfeld/DPA/PA Images

A current of polarisation and fragmentation is sweeping across European politics. That was reflected in the unwieldy and challenging process of settling the next round of top EU jobs—a process that was always going to be complex due to considerations of gender and nationality. It remains to be seen if Ursula von der Leyen will be approved as President of the European Commission and indeed whether the rest of the package will be signed off, but the wider issues that will define the EU’s next cycle stretch beyond the selection of individual candidates. What will be the EU’s role during a period of changing geopolitical realities?

The two most intense challenges the EU had to grapple with during its past cycle were the refugee and eurozone crises. Worryingly, intractable differences between different countries are unlikely to significantly change. Migration remains a sticking point after the 2015 refugee crisis, resulting in the lack of comprehensive reform of the Dublin asylum regulation or a clear mechanism to be implemented in the wake of a future crisis. Some consensus was reached among leaders on the protection of European borders, but the next Commission must collaborate with heads of state to chart a long-term approach to immigration on a continent with negative demographics. This is complicated by the outright hostility of some governments to liberal values and the reluctance of many other governments to expend political capital on immigration issues.

On the future of the eurozone, the selection of Christine Lagarde as the next President of the European Central Bank sends a signal about the political nature of the job. The avoidance of a hawkish ECB President, however, does not settle the debate on the future of the single currency. The idea of completing the economic and monetary union is floated in EU documents, but remains an unlikely prospect. The emergence of the Hanseatic League, a group of fiscally conservative Northern European countries, in combination with Germany’s strict stance on fiscal discipline, will block any strong movement on fiscal transfers and reduce the likelihood of a eurozone budget.

On EU economic development, the completion of the single market has long been an ideal and was recently raised again by 17 member states, but it will be difficult to clear hurdles on a number of fronts such as regulation and taxation. Competition policy remains dynamic. Current Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager made a significant impact by imposing fines on American technology companies. The Franco-German proposal to overhaul current EU competition policy is reinvigorating debate and although von der Leyen does not have background in competition, she is likely to favour the German push to a more protective Industrial policy. Rumours that the Competition portfolio might be handed to Italy would add a layer of uncertainty, but addressing the big tech, innovation and competition debate will be a central task during the next EU cycle.

The Green agenda would have been injected with new vitality under a Commission led by Frans Timmermans. The Dutchman was considered a frontrunner. It will be potentially less ambitious under von der Leyen who has not clearly defined her stance on the environment. The Commission presented a strategic long-term vision for a climate neutral 2050 economy last November and the direction of travel towards a more sustainable economy is definitely set. This comes as a Green wave hits western and Northern European countries, but it remains difficult to reach unanimity on carbon emission targets, with countries such as Poland reluctant to commit to sweeping changes.

In the realm of foreign policy, the sidelining of the High Representative role during the allocation of top jobs reveals an under-appreciation of the foreign policy challenges facing the EU at a critical time, when it must act as a stronger foreign policy actor. Adopting a more comprehensive engagement strategy with the US, China and Russia is vital. The failure to effectively engage with recent incidents involving Iran, Venezuela and Russia indicates where room is that can be filled. Von der Leyen has in the past specifically emphasised that for the EU and NATO defence is entwined; strengthening defence might thus be one of her priorities in the future. EU enlargement in the western Balkans remains a bone of contention, with accession talks with Albania and recently renamed North Macedonia postponed to September. This delay undermines the EU’s credibility, which is already perilous due to Western Balkan susceptibility to other spheres of influence.

Finally, what about Brexit? On this the EU position is unlikely to change very much. Von der Leyen has said that “Everyone loses through Brexit.” The European Union is still unlikely to refuse an Article 50 extension and go for no-deal. But fundamentally, a reopening of the Withdrawal Agreement has been repeatedly ruled out.

Polarisation has seeped into the European political system, rendering decision-making more difficult and compromise key in EU negotiations. Collective interests must be spelled out to secure a consensus on the main direction of travel. With geopolitical transformations creating new risks and opportunities, the next leaders must define the significance of the EU as a successful and decisive actor both within and beyond the EU27.