Europe’s new leaders to face major early tests

Europe’s new leaders to face major early tests

Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen, currently a defense minister in Angela Merkel’s Cabinet, has been proposed for the European Commission president’s role. (Reuters)

EU leaders on Tuesday agreed in principle on a new team to lead the Brussels-based club into the 2020s after a battle royal to carve up the top positions. The reason why it took five weeks and three summits to agree the new names was that there is now massive pressure on them to successfully shape the bloc’s future strategic agenda at a time of potentially intensifying troubles.
Two women are set for top roles: Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen, an EU federalist and currently a defense minister in Angela Merkel’s Cabinet, has been proposed for the European Commission president’s role, while International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde was nominated to become chief of the European Central bank. Meanwhile, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel was proposed to be president of the European Council, and Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell was put forward for EU foreign policy chief.
The selections, if ratified, represent a setback to the European Parliament, which has lost its “voice” on the selection of the European Commission president role, widely seen as the most important in Brussels. Previously, MEP Manfred Weber was the favored candidate of fellow German national Merkel for this pivotal position, and he had the backing of the right-of-center European People’s Party (EPP), which emerged as the largest single party in May’s elections. Yet the list of those not happy with the choice of Weber was long, and it included French President Emmanuel Macron.
The new leaders will take office at a moment of major change for the EU, with a series of key domestic and foreign policy debates about the bloc’s future underway. They include how the union will be rebalanced internally following the exit of the UK, one of its largest members, as well as the bloc’s future external role in a fast-changing world outside of the continent.
Amid these big challenges and potential opportunities, how the EU responds — from ongoing pressures facing the euro zone and Schengen areas to ties with other world powers — will determine its future and place in the world.
On the external front, numerous challenges are particularly pressing in what current European Council President Donald Tusk has called the EU’s “new geopolitical reality.” In 2017, he outlined these pressures, which include an increasingly assertive Russia and China; instability in the Middle East that has helped drive the migration problems impacting the continent; and policy uncertainty from Washington, with Donald Trump calling for the EU’s further dismemberment.
This new geopolitical reality is already catalyzing the EU into reform, including a European Defense Action Plan, which has been strongly supported by Von der Leyen. This plan advocates greater military cooperation between member states, and reversing a decade or so of defense cuts.

Significant change is now on the cards for the EU-27 thanks to the complex array of challenges and opportunities it now faces at this pivotal moment in its history.

Andrew Hammond

This is being driven, in part, by Russian assertiveness post-Crimea, Trump’s uncertain commitment to NATO, and his campaign rhetoric that Washington should not defend European allies that are perceived to not be paying their fair share of contributions to the military alliance. Brexit could eliminate a longstanding obstacle to greater European cooperation in this area, given that successive UK governments have been opposed to deeper defense integration at the EU level.
Numerous European leaders also believe there is potentially a window of opportunity to move forward with a wider security agenda. This is centered on how best to improve the internal and external security of Europe, while enhancing the socioeconomic welfare of citizens through a jobs, growth and competitiveness agenda.
Here, there is growing consensus around what several leaders have called a new 21st century European security pact comprising measures to enhance security and border protection, as well as greater intelligence cooperation to emphasize the resilience of the EU project. Indeed, given current disagreements within Europe on the wisdom of wider integration initiatives, including in the economics area, security issues are one of the few issues where there is significant consensus across the member states and Brussels on the continent’s best way forward.
Impetus for movement forward on this security agenda has been provided by recent terrorist attacks on the continent, the migration crisis of recent years, and the launch in 2017 by current EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini of a new global strategy on foreign and security policy.
One other signal of the potential direction of travel came in 2017, when current European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker asserted the EU needs its own army — a proposal welcomed by his proposed successor Von der Leyen — so Europe can react more credibly to a threat to peace in a member state or in a neighboring state. While such a force is, at best, a longer-term aspiration, the European Defense Action Plan may be a starting point to get there.
Taken together, significant change is now on the cards for the EU-27 thanks to the complex array of challenges and opportunities it now faces at this pivotal moment in its history. How Brussels responds, with its new leadership of Von der Leyen, Michel, Borrell and Lagarde, will help determine its broader place in the world at a time of major geopolitical turbulence and economic uncertainty.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.
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