20 Dezember 2023

What lies ahead for the EU in 2024?

By Manuel Müller
Christmas decoration inside the European Parliament
It’s holiday season – time to relax and recharge for an intense electoral year.

2024 will be a global super-election year: Parliamentary and/or presidential elections will be held in eight of the world’s eleven most populous polities – India, the EU, the US, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Russia and Mexico – as well as some smaller but geopolitically important countries such as the United Kingdom, South Korea, Taiwan and Georgia. Not all of these elections are equally democratic; in Russia, for example, the winner is known in advance and the vote is little more than a demonstration of political power. But overall, the political impact of these elections will be enormous. In Europe and around the world, we are facing a year of choices.

EU elections: shift to the right

The key event at EU level in 2024 will, of course, be the elections to the European Parliament and the subsequent appointment of a new European Commission. A detailed roadmap of the main stations along the way there can be found here: By March, the European parties will adopt their election manifestos and nominate lead candidates. April and May will be dedicated to the electoral campaigns, before European voters will go to the polls on 6-9 June.

If current polls are correct, the EU faces a rightward shift of historic proportions in this election. The centre-left could be weaker, the far-right groups ECR and ID stronger than ever before. In the short run, this could help the European People’s Party: Not only does it stand a good chance of remaining the largest group, but it would also become unavoidable when it comes to forming a majority in Parliament. However, the strengthening of the far right is also likely to lead to internal strategic conflicts within the EPP over whether to maintain a “cordon sanitaire” or open up to the right.

Far right strengthened in member states – and in the Council

But it is not only the result of the European elections that is likely to play a role in this debate, but also the outcome of the national elections that will be held in several member states in 2024: in Portugal in March, in Belgium in June (at the same time as the European election), and in Croatia, Austria, Lithuania and Romania in the autumn. According to the polls, far-right parties could become the strongest force in both Belgium and Austria – and in Belgium, a Flemish separatist debate could also be on the cards. In other countries, right-wing parties also have a chance of gaining seats and possibly becoming part of a coalition government as junior partners.

Depending on the outcome of these national elections and the still open government formation in the Netherlands, not only the ECR but also the ID could significantly strengthen their position in the EU Council. And the Council does not usually vote along party lines (which would make it possible to outvote representatives of far-right governments) but seeks the broadest possible consensus among member states. It is therefore not primarily through the European Parliament, but through the Council, that far-right parties are likely to exert greater influence on European politics in the near future.

Appointing the Commission and other “top jobs”

After the European Parliament election, it will be time to appoint the next Commission president. As in 2014 and 2019, the European parties will nominate lead candidates before the elections – a process that, despite all the doomsaying, has become a normal part of European democracy. The most likely scenario at present seems to be that the current incumbent, Ursula von der Leyen (CDU/EPP), will stand as the EPP’s lead candidate and, following a victory for her party, will obtain a majority in both the Parliament and the European Council. But of course this is far from certain; a lot can and will happen between now and the election of the new Commission.

Starting with the Commission president, the European Council will then try to fill the other “top jobs” (the high representative for Foreign Affairs and the president of the European Council) in such a way that large and small, northern and southern, western and eastern member states, men and women, and all parties of the grand coalition (EPP, socialists, and liberals) are represented.

The remaining commissioners will then be proposed by national governments and approved by the European Parliament. There will be a shift to the centre-right because the EPP currently governs several more member states than it did in 2019, but the number of far-right commissioners will likely remain small. Barring any major institutional crises, the new Commission is expected to take office on 1 November.

Strategic Agenda, Political Guidelines – and a coalition agreement?

The EU will not only renew itself institutionally in 2024, but also programmatically. Immediately after the European elections, the European Council will adopt its “Strategic Agenda” for the next five years, and shortly after that, the Commission president-elect will present his or her “Political Guidelines” to the European Parliament.

In addition, it is possible that the large pro-European political groups in the Parliament (EPP, S&D, Renew Europe, and Greens) will negotiate a kind of coalition agreement among themselves, which could form an institutional counterpart to the European Council’s Strategic Agenda. In any case, by the middle of the year it will be clear which objectives the EU institutions want to prioritise in the future.

Commission work programme: “90 per cent” finished already

But first, the remaining programme for the current legislature has to be completed. Unlike in many national parliaments, the principle of discontinuity does not apply to legislative proposals in the EU: Initiatives that have not been finalised by the end of the legislative period do not simply lapse, but are usually taken up again by the newly elected Parliament. However, the Parliament and the Council regularly try to complete as many legislative procedures as possible before the end of the legislature.

For its part, the Commission announced in October that it had already “delivered on over 90% of the commitments” it had made for 2019-24. Therefore, its work programme for 2024 contains only few new initiatives – including a new wind power package, a strategy for the European defence industry, an initiative for a joint European degree and an “EU space law”.

Single market: Two former prime ministers present reports

An important issue in 2024 (and beyond) will be the future of the European single market. In recent years, active industrial policy has become increasingly important worldwide. On the one hand, there is a broad consensus that the environmental transformation needed to protect the climate can only be achieved through more public investment. On the other hand, geo-economic considerations, such as the development and protection of strategic industries, also play a role.

This is particularly challenging for the EU: The EU institutions do not have the financial means to support specific industries on a large scale. In recent years, the EU has therefore given member states more leeway for their own national state-aid measures, which Germany in particular has been keen to take advantage of. However, these measures tend to benefit the member states’ own national companies the most – and thus lead to distortions in the single market, as large and rich countries can afford to spend more than smaller and poorer ones.

These and other questions will be addressed in two reports to be presented by former Italian prime ministers Enrico Letta and Mario Draghi in the first half of 2024. Letta’s report on the future of the single market will be discussed at the March European Council, while Draghi’s report on competitiveness is expected to be delivered around June. They will be the starting point for further debates in the coming years.

Rule of law crisis: finally united against Orbán?

Another issue that could see movement in 2024 is Europe’s rule of law crisis. For a long time, there was little progress in this area because the Polish government under Mateusz Morawiecki (PiS/ECR) and the Hungarian government under Viktor Orbán (Fidesz/–) covered each other’s backs and blocked EU action. Following the change of government in Poland, however, Orbán is now increasingly on his own, as was evident at the recent European Council. The fact that Orbán is now aggressively using his veto right on Ukraine policy of all things could be a further incentive for other governments to withdraw Hungary’s Council voting rights under Art. 7 (3) TEU.

However, it is not certain that Orbán is really as isolated as he has recently appeared to be. He could, for example, seek support in Slovakia, where the government of Robert Fico (Smer/PES membership suspended) is also seen as a rather unreliable ally on Ukraine. Moreover, the Hungarian government will take over the EU presidency in the second half of 2024 (after Belgium in the first half) and will probably be able to use this to prevent any drastic new measures against it.

Ukraine aid and other foreign policy stress tests

In any case, the difficulties with the Hungarian government should not be a decisive obstacle to continued support for Ukraine against Russia’s war of aggression. If Orbán does not give in on the need to increase the EU budget, the other member states are likely to find other ways of providing the funds, either through enhanced cooperation or bilaterally outside the EU framework.

A bigger challenge, however, could arise if Donald Trump and the Republican Party win the US elections in November and cut off US aid to Ukraine. To fill the gap, the EU would have to step up its own engagement significantly. This would be a new stress test for the member states’ unity in foreign policy, which already left much to be desired in the EU’s response to the Gaza war in 2023. And it is of course impossible to predict what other global political challenges will emerge in 2024. For authoritarian actors, the many upcoming elections could provide an opportunity to create unrest or trigger crises while democracies are focused on their own electoral campaigns.

Enlargement and reform: with a view to 2030

The issues at the heart of the next legislature will be enlargement and reform of the EU. At its meeting last week, the European Council decided to open accession negotiations with Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova and to make Georgia a candidate country. Also for the Western Balkans, further progress is expected soon.

It is true that the negotiations with Ukraine are taking place under the shadow of a possible Hungarian veto, which could stall the accession process at several points and until the last moment. And, of course, all further developments depend crucially on the progress of reforms in the accession countries – no binding time horizon has yet been agreed.

But the year 2030 (brought into play by European Council President Charles Michel in August and taken up by the Franco-German experts group on EU reform in September) hovers over many discussions as a possible target date for the next enlargement. Even if there are delays in the accession countries, the EU should at least put itself in a position to accept new member states by 2030.

A treaty convention – or “conclusions on a roadmap for future work”?

The Commission therefore intends to present a “pre-enlargement review” by June, analysing how various EU institutions and policies would be affected by enlargement and making recommendations for reform. Also the European Council recently announced that it would “address internal reforms at its upcoming meetings with a view to adopting by summer 2024 conclusions on a roadmap for future work”.

Meanwhile, the European Parliament is already a big step ahead: Since 2022, it has been working on proposals for a treaty reform that would make the EU fit for enlargement. In November, it has formally adopted these proposals and called on the European Council to convene a treaty convention “as soon as possible”.

Given the political majorities in the European Council, it is unlikely that this will actually happen next year. However, with its proposals, the European Parliament has set a benchmark against which other reform initiatives will be measured. The debate on how an enlarged EU can become more efficient and democratic is in full swing and will be a key issue for 2024 and beyond.

But before all that, this blog will be taking its annual winter break until early January. Happy holidays and a prosperous new year to all readers!

Picture: Christmas decoration: © European Union 2016 – European Parliament [CC BY-NC-ND 4.0], via Flickr.

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