Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.
On Tuesday night, after five weeks and three summits, European Union leaders finally agreed in principle on a new team to lead the Brussels-based club into the 2020s after a battle royale to carve up the top positions. Little wonder that it took so long, though: there is enormous pressure on the people chosen to guide the 500-million-population bloc through a time of potentially intensifying troubles.
Two women have top roles: Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen, currently Defence Minister in Angela Merkel’s cabinet and an EU federalist, has been proposed for the European Commission president’s role, while International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde has been nominated to become chief of the European Central Bank. Meanwhile, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel has been put forward as the president of the European Council, and Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell as EU foreign policy chief.
The selections, if ratified, represent a setback to the European Parliament, which has lost its voice in the process to select the European Commission president, widely seen as the most important job in Brussels. Manfred Weber, a member of the European Parliament, had been the favoured candidate of fellow German Ms. Merkel, as well as of the right-of-centre European People’s Party, which emerged as the largest single party in May’s European Parliament elections. But there was a long list of people unhappy with the choice of Mr. Weber, including French President Emmanuel Macron.
The new EU leaders will take office at a moment of major change, with a series of key European domestic and foreign-policy debates about the EU’s future underway. These discussions will consider how the union will be re-balanced internally following the departure of the United Kingdom, 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 continuing pressures facing the 19-country euro zone and the wider 26-country Schengen passport-free area, 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: an increasingly assertive Russia and China, instability in the Middle East that has helped drive the continent’s migration issues and policy uncertainty from Washington as Donald Trump calls for the EU’s further dismemberment.
This new geopolitical reality is already catalyzing the EU into reform, including a European Defence Action Plan that Ms. von der Leyen strongly supported as Germany’s Defence Minister. This plan advocates greater military co-operation between member states and reversing a decade of defence cuts.
This is being driven, in part, by Russian boldness post-Crimea and Mr. Trump’s questionable commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, as well as his campaign rhetoric that Washington should not defend European allies that are perceived not to be paying their fair share of contributions to the military alliance. Brexit could also now eliminate a long-standing obstacle to greater European co-operation in this area, given that successive U.K. governments have been opposed to deeper defence integration at the EU level.
Numerous European leaders also believe there is a window of opportunity to move forward with a wider security agenda, too. In the wake of recent terrorist attacks on the continent and the migration crisis of recent years and the 2017 launch of global strategy on foreign and security policy, there is growing consensus around a new European security pact that would aim to enhance security and border protection, and increase EU intelligence co-operation to emphasize the project’s resilience. Indeed, given current disagreements within Europe on the wisdom of wider integration initiatives, including economic ones, security issues are one of the few areas where there is significant agreement across the member states and Brussels.
One other signal of potential progress came in 2017, when Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker asserted the EU needs its own army that would be able to react more credibly to threats to a member or neighbouring state. While such a force is at best a longer-term aspiration, Ms. von der Leyen has welcomed the idea, and the European Defence Action Plan may be a starting point to get there.
Taken together, an array of challenges and opportunities means that significant change is now in the cards for the EU. How Brussels responds with its new leadership will collectively help determine its broader place in the world at this pivotal moment in its history, and a broader one of geopolitical turbulence and economic uncertainty.
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