Wednesday

28th Feb 2024

Feature

Ten dilemmas for the EU in 2024

  • Questions about EU elections, support for Ukraine, the Gaza war, pre-enlargement reforms, the green agenda, and austerity are expected to dominate the agenda in 2024 (Photo: AI-generated image with Bing's Image Creator)
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This will be a decisive year. Elections will take place in over 50 nations around the world — but what, specifically, lies ahead for Europe, and the EU?

The upcoming European Parliament elections will be a make-or-break moment, as the composition of the next parliament and its MEPs will determine the future of key policy initiatives. In 2024, decisions (or the lack thereof) will significantly shape the trajectory of the EU — both domestically and internationally. Questions about social and economic stability, rule of law and unity within the 27-nation bloc loom large.

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Against the backdrop of the challenges that unfolded in 2023 — from the increasingly lethal consequences of climate change to the cost-of-living crisis, Russia's ongoing aggression on Ukraine, Europe's widening internal division over support for Israel, and the ever-shifting political landscape — these are 10 key questions that the EU is facing this year:

1. Will the far-right score big at the European Parliament election?

The upcoming EU elections, due to take place on 9 June 2024, are likely to mirror individual national elections across the 27 member states — which has triggered concerns over a potential surge of far-right parties. After Geert Wilders' surprise win in the Netherlands, Belgium's far-right leader Tom Van Grieken is topping the polls. Germany's far-right AfD (Alternative for Germany) party is consistently topping 20 percent in domestic polling, with a slew of major regional elections scheduled for 2024, and Italy is already ruled by the hard-right Georgia Meloni. Meanwhile, the fate of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán's Fidesz party will also play a key role in the aftermath of the EU elections — since they need to rejoin another party after quitting the European People's Party in 2021. During the second half of 2024, Hungary will also hold the EU Council presidency — an uncomfortable scenario for many, especially with EU Council president Charles Michel, of Belgium, out of the picture after deciding to run to become an MEP.

Recent polls suggest the far-right Identity and Democracy (ID) group might become the third-largest force in the European Parliament, and its 720 MEPs, with little chance of a so-called 'cordon sanitaire' (arms-length only relations with mainstream parties). And experts have blamed centre-right parties for increasingly echoing far-right rhetoric.

With the far-right as the third-largest force, progressing on issues like human rights, social justice, and environmental policies may become even more challenging — even though projections indicate that there will be a progressive majority in the next parliament. Ultimately, the voting behaviour of MEPs from the centre-right European People's Party, which has aligned itself with far-right groups on certain files, is expected to be decisive for the success (or not) of the next legislative term.

Meanwhile, US elections in November could also see the return of nationalist-populist ex-president Donald Trump, driving a wedge in transatlantic relations, further emboldening Trump's far-right friends in Europe — and spelling major trouble for the Nato alliance.

Read more: Sociologist Jérôme Fourquet: 'The silent majority is pivotal' & Countering the far-right before EU elections — too little, too late?

2. Will EU continue to support Ukraine 'no matter what'?

At December 2023's European Council, EU leaders failed to agree on a €50bn aid package badly needed for Ukraine — especially after the US Senate shot down president Joe Biden's foreign aid plan to Ukraine. EU leaders will have another chance to try to convince Orbán during a special meeting, due to take place on 1 February. Orbán has asked the remaining €20bn of frozen EU funds linked to rule-of-law concerns to be unblocked in order to lift his veto. Another idea currently on the table is to provide money to Ukraine annually and with unanimous approval, allowing Orbán to periodically block the disbursements.

Kyiv already said that the latest attacks from Russia show the need for Western allies to deliver more defence equipment. But questions remain over whether EU nations will meet a previous commitment to send Ukraine one million rounds of artillery ammunition by next spring. Only one-third has been delivered as of the end of December, according to EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell. After the new Slovak government of populist Robert Fico refused to approve a military aid package for Ukraine, Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg warned that "stopping military assistance to Kyiv would prolong the war, not end it". Meanwhile, around 60 percent of Europeans support the purchase and supply of military equipment to Ukraine, according to the last EU opinion poll.

A re-election of Donald Trump in November could be a potential death-blow for Nato (Photo: whitehouse.gov)

Read more: Is Viktor Orbán now a traitor to the EU? & How will the Ukraine/Russia war pan out in 2024?

3. How will the EU handle the Gaza war?

Israel has said its war against the Palestinian group Hamas in Gaza will continue for months, but as the civilian death toll mounts and Israel also goes after Hamas leaders in foreign countries, the risk that other Middle East states will be drawn into the conflict becomes greater each day. Israel is already exchanging fire with Lebanese paramilitary group Hezbollah and the Houthi rebel group in Yemen is firing on ships it says carry Israeli cargo. Hezbollah and the Houthis are both backed by Iran, which also has proxy fighters in Iraq and Syria, and according to some experts, the main reason why Iran has not yet waded into the conflict is due to a US naval deterrent in the region. The war has driven a wedge between Western allies who back Israel, such as the US and Germany, versus those critical of its conduct, led by Spain, plus Belgium and Ireland. It is also creating a geopolitical backlash by the Global South against the West, fuelled by China and Russia. And even if the war ends without regional escalation, EU countries may find it hard to swallow Israeli plans for the day after, if these include Israeli military rule in Gaza, forced displacement of refugees, and demands for further EU funds to rebuild infrastructure.

Read more: Israel's EU ambassador: 'No clean way to do this operation & 'EU has no interest in peace,' ex-Palestinian envoy to EU says

4. Will EU outline pre-enlargement reforms ahead of elections?

Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, enlargement has been trailed as a "geo-strategic investment" in peace and prosperity on the continent. Aspiring members are given a long list of to-dos before even starting long-lasting negotiations (that can be blocked at any moment by one single country). But opening the doors for a country as huge as Ukraine has also obliged leaders to reflect on the much-needed reforms the EU needs to undertake to enlarge to a group of more than 30 states. During the last European Council, leaders agreed to discuss internal reforms in upcoming meetings to adopt conclusions and a roadmap for future work by summer 2024. Last year, a group of German-French experts proposed a list of institutional reforms to make the EU ready for enlargement by 2030. This includes ending unanimity voting in the council, securing the harmonisation of EU electoral laws and reducing the size of the college of commissioners.

Read more: EU should talk about the cost of failed enlargement, experts say & Austria throws a curveball over EU Balkans enlargement

5. What will become of green agenda?

Political pushbacks against some environmental policies, plus delays in the EU's sustainable agenda raised concerns over the fate of the Green Deal last year. Key files such as the REACH revision on hazardous chemicals and the Sustainable Food Systems law were left hanging — and it remains to be seen whether they will make it to the work programme of the next commission. 2024 will test the EU's (and more concretely the Belgian EU Council presidency's) ability to finalise the last batch of green legislation by the March deadline, in time for the EU elections. The list of pending green files includes new emissions rules for cars, stricter air-quality standards, the right-to-repair law, and a directive to tackle greenwashing. An EU restriction covering a wide range of uses of the so-called forever chemicals (PFAS) could materialise this year, although enforcement will come into play later on. The Belgians are also expected to put big effort into reaching a deal on the Net-Zero Industry Act — one of the EU's proposals to respond to the US Inflation Reduction Act. Meanwhile, campaigners have warned that the recent reform of fiscal rules undermines long-term debt sustainability, providing EU countries with insufficient investment space and flexibility to reach their climate and energy goals. Additionally, if traditionally pro-environment socialist and green parties do badly in the upcoming EU elections, the task of implementing approved laws may become increasingly challenging.

Read more: The 'regulatory fatigue' fightback against EU Green Deal & Can Green Deal survive the 2024 European election?

6. Will Europe lock in more gas resources?

Two years after Moscow invaded Ukraine, the EU keeps importing liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Russia and the rush to construct additional LNG terminals continues. No EU sanctions have been imposed so far on Russian LNG shipments. Landlocked central and eastern European and some southern European countries also received Russian fossil-fuel gas via pipeline last year. Hungary, for example, was the top importer of Russian fossil fuels within the EU in November 2023, according to an analysis of the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air. Europe has increased its LNG capacity and plans for new regasification LNG terminals are set to bring Europe's LNG capacity to 103 bcm per year, according to Global Energy Monitor. Germany leads Europe's LNG buildout, followed by Italy, Greece, and the non-EU UK. This raises concerns for experts who see the EU locking in more gas as Europe shifts to a net-zero economy. "New LNG projects will exacerbate underutilisation at existing infrastructure, and, along with new long-term LNG purchase agreements, will challenge Europe's ability to meet its climate goals," Robert Rozansky, a global LNG analyst from Global Energy Monitor, told EUobserver. The current proposed EU gas buildout of LNG infrastructure is estimated to cost approximately €34.1bn, but many of these projects could rapidly turn into stranded assets. Nevertheless, a modest decrease in LNG exports to Europe in 2023 offers a glimpse of hope for a potential energy self-sufficiency in the future.

(Photo: Global Energy Monitor)

Read more: EU bets big on fossil hydrogen and carbon storage & Why EU offshore wind is in trouble

7. Will EU return to austerity policies in 2024?

The suspension of fiscal rules after Covid-19, together with the post-pandemic recovery funds and the European Pillar of Social Rights, was aimed at avoiding the austerity scenario which followed the 2008 financial crisis — but none of these policies brought lasting changes. With record-high interest rates and new fiscal rules requiring governments to once again limit debt and deficits, about half of all EU members are expected to impose budget cuts in 2024. Green investments, crucial for achieving long-term environmental goals, might be among the first to bear the brunt of these austerity measures. Germany has already slashed €45bn from its climate projects each year until 2027 to comply with borrowing limits. In a win for indebted countries like France, Italy, Portugal and Spain a temporary provision holds that recent increases in borrowing costs will not count towards deficits until 2027, giving them a little more time to adjust to the new regime. Nevertheless, spending will be curtailed, and yet underinvestment in public services has been shown to fuel far-right narratives and contribute to an increase in support for extremist voting.

Read more: New EU debt rules 'risk undermining climate goals' & 'A prosperous New Year'? EU heads for austerity in 2024

8. How will migration affect EU in 2024?

Migration is poised to dominate yet again the EU's agenda — especially in the context of the June elections, where it is expected to emerge as a key campaign topic, especially for far-right parties. Intense debates will continue to come, even though the EU finally managed to overhaul the bloc's migration and asylum systems, after several years of bitter negotiations. "As always, there is a risk of politicians with populist agendas using the issue of migration to polarise the political debate," Marta Welander, a campaigner from the International Rescue Committee said. In this context, she argues that European leaders must show humanitarian leadership to address some of "the cracks" in the recent EU Pact on Migration and Asylum. This year, however, the EU is also expected to concentrate efforts on making more deals with African countries, such as the controversial one with Tunisia. In January, the EU Commission is set to announce a "strategic and comprehensive partnership" with Egypt.

Read more: Belgian EU presidency eyes more Africa-based migrant deals & Looming EU-Egypt deal prompts fears for future Gaza refugees

9. What's next for EU's digital policy?

The 2024 wave of elections will test how big platforms cope with recently-approved EU legislation, as Brussels implements key laws such as the Digital Service Act, the Digital Market Act and new rules to ensure transparency in political advertising. While 2023 was the year of generative AI (such as ChatGPT), 2024 is expected to be a year crucial for AI regulation — with concerns about its military application high on the agenda. The EU has already laid the foundations with the recently agreed AI Act, which categorises the risks posed by AI and it is expected to enter into force in 2026. Additionally, the Global Digital Compact, a UN initiative that aims to create a framework for complex digital issues, will be agreed at the Summit of the Future in September 2024. Meanwhile, collective risks assessment for AI, advanced semiconductor tech, quantum computing, and biotechnology could lead to restrictive measures such as export controls. This year we'll also see an increase in data flows, especially between the EU and the US, under the new Data Privacy Framework.

Read more: The end of street anonymity — is Europe ready for that? & EU warns of Russian 'mass manipulation' as elections loom

10. Will EU manage to keep its 'social pillar'?

Notwithstanding the global Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the conflict in Gaza, the cost of living crisis is one of the main concerns of EU citizens. Specifically, 95.3 million people (21.6 percent of the EU population), were at risk of poverty or social exclusion in 2022. Certain social groups, such as young adults, women and the unemployed, have been particularly exposed, putting a strain on the EU's 'leave no one behind' policy this year. In the run-up to the elections, the EU is trying to pass legislation to improve the working conditions of gig workers, tackle bogus internships for young people, promote green and digital skills or extend the rights of disabled people with the European disability card. Additionally, 2024 could be the year to streamline gender-based violence legislation across EU member states, establishing a fundamental common approach: any non-consensual sex should be classified as rape. But the issue still divides EU countries, with France and Germany raising legal concerns about the EU's powers in a criminal matter.

Read more: Hits and misses of EU workplace and jobs legislation & Paris and Berlin key to including rape in gender-violence directive

Bonus: What will happen to EU-Africa relations?

With the EU facing an election year, Africa policy is likely to take a back seat with few new initiatives on the agenda. Along with the US and the UK, Brussels was blindsided by an African initiative — led by Nigeria — to get the UN to agree to set up an intergovernmental tax authority that would effectively replace the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. EU and other Western officials will have to decide whether to recalibrate their approach to the new UN body, which will agree on its structure and policy priorities later this year. The new commission, which will take office in September, will not include EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell, who is set to retire from politics. Borrell has been highly critical of the diplomatic efforts by the EU and nation-states, particularly France, in the Sahel, where a series of military regimes have severed relations on military and security co-operation with Paris and Brussels. The EU executive will be under continued pressure to respond to the growing influence of Russia's mercenary group Wagner across the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa. Meanwhile, the commission will continue to tout its Global Gateway infrastructure programme to African states though critics say that it offers small sums of finance compared with China.

Read more: EU pledges support for African finance reform at summit & How will the EU's carbon border tax affect Africa?

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