Kirsty Hughes and David Gow
This article was first published in the Europe and Scotland newsletter on Kirsty Hughes’ substack: https://kirstyhughes.substack.com/p/a-look-forward-for-the-european-union.
These short look forwards on ten big issues for the EU in 2024 are written by Kirsty Hughes (KH) and by David Gow (DG), former European business editor of the Guardian, and editor of sceptical.scot. Initials at the end of each of the ten indicate the author.
(1) Gaza: Will the EU Remain Divided and Powerless on the Sidelines?
The relentless destruction of Gaza by Israel is set to continue into the new year. The EU will remain divided even though 17 of its 27 member states did, by late 2023, back an immediate ceasefire. Not only does the EU have no direct influence on the Israeli government but also it is not, given its divisions, in a position to put pressure on President Biden. And it is only the US administration that might successfully push the Israeli government to end its bombardment, the mounting tens of thousands of deaths, the displacement of almost the entire population, and the humanitarian crisis which teeters on the edge of a famine. (KH)
(2) Will the EU drive forward its commitments to Ukraine?
The EU’s leaders will find a way to meet their main funding commitments to Ukraine by the time of their 1st February summit, even if not fully. This is likely to happen without the agreement of Hungary’s obstructive leader. An accession negotiating framework should be in place by March. If Viktor Orbán vetoes the framework or opening the initial chapters of talks then the crisis of the December summit will recur. The EU has too much political capital invested in its big enlargement push to let one small, recalcitrant and undemocratic country freeze accession indefinitely, so then a political fight will start and the EU26 have various tools for that. (KH)
(3) Will the EU’s geopolitical ambition to rival the US and China take shape or be shown up as a grand delusion?
The “awakening of geopolitical Europe” (Josep Borrell) occurred with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but it has often proved to be rude: the EU may have raised its game with new instruments like the €5bn European Peace Facility to buy/provide arms for Kyiv but Hungary’s Orban has undermined its search for a bigger role – and Gaza shows it as a bit-part player. It no longer commands the climate change field as before (think 2015 v 2023). Enlargement to as many as 36 members proves the EU’s continuing attractiveness but the process will be prolonged, fraught and may be destabilising without substantial reform. Ironically, a Trump victory in November could be the real catalyst for a radical step-change by ditching the 1948 transatlantic settlement. (DG)
(4) Migration: will the EU Continue to Pursue a Fortress Europe Approach?
The EU finally agreed the core elements of its asylum and migration pact on the 20th December and will likely finalise the agreement before the European Parliament elections. The pact represents an intensification of a fortress Europe approach, allowing for detention centres at EU borders for those, including children, assessed as unlikely to succeed in their asylum applications, and for fast-track removals. The pact has been heavily criticized by leading international human rights groups. The EU has failed, and will continue to fail, to open up better, legal migration routes. Instead, it will pursue this more reactionary approach to asylum-seekers and refugees. (KH)
(5) Will a Bigger Far-Right Block after the European Parliament Elections Paralyse EU Decision-Making?
The proportion of far-right MEPs in the European Parliament elections is likely to increase beyond its current level of just under 20% of MEPs. But the centre-right, centre-left, liberal and green groups will still dominate albeit with lower numbers. Decision-making, and coalition-building, will get more difficult on sensitive issues, including climate change, Ukraine, and migration. But the real question here is whether the centre-right EPP grouping cooperates on any issues with the far-right, not least when the EPP already voted against key climate laws notably the nature restoration law in 2023. (KH)
(6) Who will be the Next European Commission President?
Ursula von der Leyen, shoehorned in by EU leaders in 2019, has yet to declare if she’s going for a second term but her unremittingly pro-Israeli stance over Gaza is causing a backlash. MEPs want a bigger say this time, with the lead candidate (Spitzenkandidat) of the biggest party that emerges from June’s elections – likely to be the EPP, von der Leyen’s group – automatically chosen so that favours her. Others in the frame are French industry commissioner Thierry Breton (Renew), EP president Roberta Metsola and even ex-Italian premier/ECB boss Mario Draghi. If it wins big, the far-right (ID/ECR) could play a defining role but von der Leyen looks set. (DG)
(7) Will the EU Overcome the Climate Backlash?
The European electorate is volatile, with a rise in support for far-right, anti-green parties in the Netherlands and Germany, amongst others, offset by more support for centre left, pro-EU parties in, for example, Poland and Spain. Not forgetting huge street protests against new oil/gas exploitations. The backlash against the EU’s and other green industrial plans has even spun an eponymous website. But the bloc won’t overcome either the accelerating climate emergency or the backlash by caving into farmers and motorists but by delivering green growth to a stagnating economy, investing in new skills and eroding inequalities. And spelling out clearly why the Fit for 55 campaign matters. So far, it won’t meet its climate goals nor overcome populist resistance. (DG)
(8) Will a New Stability and Growth Pact Usher in More Austerity?
The freshly revised/revived version of the S&GP and its strict fiscal provisions is being spun by EU finance ministers as “more realistic” and enshrining lessons from the great financial crisis. It does no such thing. The “frugals” led by Germany, a country constitutionally bound and strangled by its “debt brake,” have ignored the real lesson of the last 15 years: the need for collective EU funding (like #NextGenerationEU and the RRF) and for public spending to invest in the digital and green transition towards sustainable growth, including in retraining a skilled workforce. So, no “golden rule” as proposed by MEPs (yet to have their say on the new pact) but a totemic 1.5% budget deficit via spending cuts. Na Quatsch as our German friends say. (DG)
(9) Will the German Coalition Collapse and Cause an Early Election?
Shades of March 1930? The recessive decline of the German economy, notably its industrial base, threatens the survival of the “traffic light” coalition of Social Democrats, Greens and Liberals. Half of Germans are pessimistic about the future. The constitutional court has blown a €60bn budget in the federal budget, endangering the digital and green transitions. The far-right AfD is on the up now in the west as well as east – and the capital city Berlin must partially re-run the federal election. Failure to modernise the economy and administration in the Merkel years is an albatross for her successor Olaf Scholz who may just stagger through until his terms ends in autumn 2025. (DG)
(10) Will a Labour win at the general election help or hinder Scotland-EU relations?
Scotland has a good image in the EU, not least since its vote to remain in the EU in 2016. It will retain its good relations in Brussels and other EU capitals even after a Labour victory. More positive EU-UK relations may help trade flows at the margin, which will be positive for Scotland too. Since Labour, under Starmer, accepts Brexit, the Scottish government will still be distinctive in its wish to re-join the EU. A Labour government is likely to be neuralgic, as the Tories have been, about Scottish government paradiplomacy and its hubs in a number of EU capitals but will be somewhat less aggressive about it. (KH)
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Picture credits: Kirsty Hughes