Business as Unusual: Europe’s Next Leadership and the Challenges Ahead

July 09, 2024
Bucking the precedent of long and arduous bargaining processes over the EU’s top institutional jobs, national leaders found consensus on nominees for the bloc’s three most prized positions unusually fast. Equally unusual will be the barrage of challenges the three will face if they are approved by the European Parliament.

The white smoke that emerged from the European Council over their preferred candidates for the bloc’s top jobs appeared quickly—just three short weeks after an impactful European election—which clearly speaks to the moment in which Europe finds itself: citizens are requiring a stronger and more resilient EU at a time of great strategic and social insecurity.

The three names put forward—the incumbent Ursula von der Leyen as president of the European Commission, Portugal’s António Costa as president of the European Council, and Estonian prime minister Kaja Kallas as the EU’s next foreign policy chief—show a confident mix of executive experience and institutional adeptness, given the need to balance geographical representation, gender diversity, and the relative strength of European political forces. But the real test lies ahead: Europe’s new leaders will have to steer the bloc’s fortunes through challenges that will be anything but usual. 

Beyond European Borders

For starters, Europe will continue to face an increasingly aggressive external environment. 

Russia’s war in Ukraine will remain the key existential threat. Brussels’ latest security commitments for Kyiv, the disbursement of €50 billion in stable funding by 2027 through the Ukraine Facility, and the continued willingness to sanction Russian activities and actors while unlocking Russian frozen assets are steps in the right direction. But much bigger steps are needed, both in terms of strategic and practical help, if Ukraine is to thwart the Russian threat. Kallas’ sensitivities and profile could be an asset in this regard, as well as in other crises on Europe’s eastern flank, such as in Georgia, Moldova, or Nagorno-Karabakh. But the larger point is that there is an ever-widening range of regional crises in multiple theaters, from the Red Sea to the Sahel and from the Israel-Hamas war to the migration conundrum that will directly test Europe’s prosperity, stability, and security.

Looking east beyond Europe’s periphery, China’s actions will certainly be part of this grimmer landscape. The EU’s anti-dumping investigation into the imports of battery electric vehicles from China as part of the Union’s derisking strategy is much needed, but is likely to increase trade tensions. Similarly, the bloc’s growing recognition of Beijing’s trade, technology, and security threat will reinforce the urgent dilemma confronting its new leadership: how to better protect European citizens from undue competition while staying true to Europe’s historic penchant for free trade and openness.

Ominous clouds are also gathering in the West. Regardless of the outcome of November’s presidential election, the EU should be prepared for a lower level of American involvement in European affairs. Even with the best-case scenario in mind, the European leadership will have to try harder to keep Washington engaged in what Europe, and not the United States, sees as priority areas: from tackling global issues such as the climate crisis, to using and not abandoning fora for coordinating responses such as the Trade and Technology Council. Willingness to accept greater responsibility for Europe’s own security will also be critical going forward. The new EU leadership must use its ties with NATO’s next Secretary-General, former Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, to continue investing in common EU defense and further consolidate the alliance’s European pillar without estranging the United States. 

Getting Our Own House in Order

The EU’s trio of new leaders will also have to focus intently on the bloc’s own domestic predicaments.

Following a historically significant result in June’s election, the far right may have been blocked from getting any top jobs, but its turbulent impact will be felt at a European level. 

The combined effect of weakening centrist forces in the European Parliament and a rising far right could make it more difficult to reach the compromises that have traditionally guided EU policy. Parties belonging to the wider far right camp are either in power or support governments in eight of the 27 member states, including Italy, Hungary, and the Netherlands, with Austria likely to join this group in the fall. Given the uncertain commitment of many of these forces to liberal democratic norms, EU institutions will find it tricker to uphold foundational European values such as the rule of law. Yet, standing firm in doing so will be vital. So, too, will be continuing to defend against wider interference efforts by bad actors, such as Russia and China, that want to fuel centrifugal forces in the bloc. Europe experienced a sharp increase in interference incidents over the past 18 months and this trend will continue. 

If past is prologue, Europe’s future will be marked by an increasing degree of turbulence, both in its domestic core and with regard to its external gravitas. While every generation of European leaders has had its share of formidable challenges to deal with, the next half-decade promises the next cadre of EU leaders challenges that will be unprecedented in intensity, and, at the very least, highly unusual. The new leaders will be well advised to deal with them in precisely the same spirit: business as unusual.