The year 2014 witnessed sweeping leadership changes in the European Union, with new faces in key positions of the EU governance structure. These include changes in the European Parliament and the Commission, as well as new leaders appointed as foreign policy chief and European Council president. With these changes comes a chance to set course in new directions, but many challenges remain for the Union, believes Dr Matthew A RosensteinAs recently as two years ago, the EU faced existential questions about the eurozone’s survival, and whether member states such as Greece might leave the currency union. Today, those fears have receded, thanks in part to financial stabilisation strategies enacted by the Troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. However, the EU still faces many challenges, ranging from problems internal to the Union – such as continued economic stagnation and high unemployment – to a host of foreign policy issues – like the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, Iran’s controversial nuclear programme, and the threat posed by Islamist militants in the Middle East.
New Faces at the Top
Following the May 2014 European Parliamentary elections, Jean-Claude Juncker was the frontrunner to become the new president of the European Commission, set to replace Jose Manuel Barroso of Portugal, whose tenure lasted 10 years over two terms. UK Prime Minister David Cameron objected that Juncker, a former premier of Luxembourg and the choice of conservatives in the EP who had secured the most seats, was too much of an ‘old-school’ federalist to be an effective Commission president in the current EU environment. Although Juncker did receive the nomination through a 26-2 summit vote by national leaders in late June (only Hungary’s Viktor Orban sided with Cameron), the British premier’s bid to block Juncker signalled further challenges to come.
Upon assuming the presidency, Juncker set to work identifying his team of 28 commissioners and their portfolios. Juncker’s line-up includes past Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans as first vice-president and six more vice-presidents, each charged with coordinating clusters of other commissioners in a more hierarchical structure than the past. There are nine female commissioners, matching the number in the Barroso II Commission. For the post of high representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, a role created by the Treaty of Lisbon and first occupied in 2009 by outgoing foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, Juncker tapped Italian Federica Mogherini. Her candidacy survived initial objections over her inexperience and apparent affinities for Russia, a key concern in the midst of the Ukraine crisis.
Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister from 2007 to 2014, was chosen as president of the European Council by the 28 EU heads of state. Tusk succeeded former Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy, who had served since December 2009 through two terms as the first Council president. Tusk’s appointment is noteworthy in that he is the first Central European to hold the position, reflecting the deep integration between West and East that the EU has achieved since the eastern enlargement of 2004. Observers expect Tusk to be responsive to the interests of East and Central European and Baltic member states, plus Ukraine, as they navigate Russia’s revanchist posture. Tusk’s chairmanship of his first EU summit of national leaders in December received praise for its efficiency and focus.
A Shaky Start and a New Agenda
During European Parliament hearings conducted in early October to evaluate the prospective commissioners, MEPs raised considerable challenges to the nominees from Britain, France, Spain, Hungary, and Slovenia. Parliament eventually approved all, but the Slovenian commissioner-designate Alenka Bratusek, whom they resoundingly rejected after her unconvincing performance in her hearing. His hand forced, Juncker identified replacement candidate Violeta Bulc for Slovenia’s slot in the commission and shuffled some commissioners’ portfolios. With such concessions, Juncker avoided rejection of his college of commissioners and Parliament approved the line-up in its October vote.
There have been other hiccups. Juncker’s Commission later faced, and survived, Parliament’s no-confidence vote in November just a few weeks into his term. The no-confidence motion was brought to a vote mainly by euroskeptic MEPs over the so-called ‘Luxleaks scandal’ involving tax breaks in Luxembourg given to companies, including some of the world’s most successful multinationals, during Juncker’s tenures as the country’s finance minister and premier.
The Commission’s agenda for 2015, released in mid-December 2014, focuses on several key issues for the EU. First and foremost is a plan for growth, jobs, and investment, aimed at combating the lingering effects of the euro crisis and continuing high unemployment. The Juncker Commission also seeks to create a more integrated Europe through a digital single market and an energy union, as well as a deeper and fairer internal market and economic and monetary union with a stronger industrial base. These internal economic pillars are complemented by a goal of negotiating a reasonable and fair Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the United States. The Juncker agenda further includes social and political objectives, emphasising fundamental rights, a common asylum policy and steps to address migration challenges, and working towards a union of democratic change embracing greater transparency and dialogue with citizens.
EU’s Foreign Policy Challenges
In the foreign policy arena, Mogherini will focus for the foreseeable future principally on the on-going crisis in Ukraine. The EU, the European Atomic Energy Community and their member states, and Ukraine signed the Association Agreement in June 2014 that had helped to spark the crisis in the first place in late 2013. Meanwhile, tensions persist and the situation remains volatile. The Minsk peace process, brokered by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and agreed upon in September 2014 by Ukraine, the Russian Federation, the Donetsk People’s Republic, and the Lugansk People’s Republic, was designed to halt the war in the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine. However, pro-Russian separatists held elections in November in contravention to the accord, and the ceasefire between Ukrainian government forces and the separatists has reportedly been violated regularly.
The EU continues to partner with the US to pressurise Russia over its annexation of Crimea. The rouble depreciated sharply in December, attributed to sanctions against Russia by the US and EU and to falling oil prices. On the one hand, therefore, the sanctions limiting Russian access to European credit and restricting sales of goods and cooperation in the oil and gas sector appear to be working. However, since a principal goal of economic sanctions is to shape the adversary’s behaviour, arguably the West’s measures cannot be said to be working unless or until Putin alters the course of Russia’s policies in Ukraine. For now, the EU’s official policy position is that the sanctions will remain in effect until Putin pulls back on his country’s incursion into Ukraine. In the meantime, the EU has vowed to support reform processes in Ukraine carried out by Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s new government, while continuing to push for constructive dialogue with Russia.
A second major foreign policy issue for the new EU leadership is the Iranian nuclear programme. Seeking continuity for the EU in the negotiations, Mogherini appointed her predecessor Catherine Ashton as special advisor for the multilateral talks with Iran and the UN Security Council P5 plus Germany and the EU. Keeping Ashton engaged is a calculated choice. She is credited as the architect of major breakthroughs leading to an interim agreement in Geneva in November 2013 to halt Iran’s uranium enrichment and allow IAEA inspections, in exchange for relief of some economic sanctions. While the sides failed to reach a hoped-for final agreement in late November 2014, they agreed to continue talks with a new goal to have an agreement in place by March and technical details cemented by the end of June 2015.
A third major foreign policy challenge for the EU is the threat posed by Islamist militants in the Middle East, and particularly, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Mogherini visited Turkey in early December, as part of the most high profile EU delegation to visit the country in several years. The EU seeks to cooperate more closely with the Turkish government to stop the flow of foreign fighters, including an estimated 3,000 from Europe, into Syria via the Turkish border – as well as preventing the flow of returning radicalised jihadis back into Europe, where they present a potential terrorist threat. Besides securing borders, cooperation on information sharing and enhanced multilateral counterterrorism coordination are imperatives for the EU. The EU pledged as one incentive €70 million in aid to Turkey for humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees. The EU also opened the door to renewed dialogue on making progress towards Turkish accession to the Union. As the international community determines ways forward to deal with the destabilising forces of the Islamic State, the EU and its relationship with Turkey could play an important part.
Other challenges, including the slow march towards a British referendum on exiting the EU, persist and loom on the horizon. While new EU leadership seeks to shape a proactive agenda for the coming years, in many areas they will likely continue to be forced to react to complex problems both within their borders and at their doorstep.
Dr Matthew A Rosenstein is Senior Associate Director of the European Union Center at the University of Illinois.