With terms of office recently ending for both EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and EU Council President Donald Tusk, both their successors – Ursula von der Leyen of Germany and former Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel – are starting off their new positions with a full and ambitious agenda.
The EU anticipates progress on a number of important issues such as climate change, Brexit, EU enlargement, and NATO, before the beginning of the 21st century’s third-decade.
NATO Celebrates 70th Anniversary
On Tuesday, December 3rd, President of the EU Commission Ursula von der Leyen attended a meeting of NATO leaders at a summit in London, marking the alliance’s 70th anniversary. The summit comes at a particularly challenging time for NATO, which has been considerably bruised over criticism of United States President Donald Trump over the past few years. To top things off, French President Emmanuel Macron recently labelled the organisation as “brain dead” in an interview.
Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been a steadfast supporter of the over 50 year old alliance and has praised recent European-based defence initiatives such as PESCO, saying that “It is important to establish a European arm that would cooperate with NATO…but such projects should never be against NATO, or instead of NATO.”
Von der Leyen, herself a former German Defence Minister, supports Merkel’s remarks and has said that NATO will remain responsible for European security. She noted that the EU’s unique strengths lie in the sharing of trade, development, culture and humanitarian aid, adding that the “EU will never be a military alliance”. Defence spending, however is anticipated to be a key point of debate at the summit.
Brexit Waits for Britain’s General Election
Both Von der Leyen and her EU Council partner Charles Michel are hoping to bring a swift closure to Brexit, with their predecessors unable to close the book on Britain’s exit, despite best efforts.
For Council President Michel, the chairing of the EU Council Summit on December 12th and 13th represents a signature moment for progress on the EU’s position on Brexit. The summit overlaps with Britain’s general election, where it is expected that a defining momentum will be achieved. Current polls indicate that Prime Minister Boris Johnson stands for re-election with a healthy majority win, and will be in a far better position to get Brexit, which has the EU’s backing, through parliament. This includes the support of Ireland, in which Dublin played tough on a deal until it got the necessary reassurances over a frictionless relationship with Northern Ireland.
If Britain’s election succeeds in bringing clarity to the situation, the EU’s next challenge will be to embark on an 11-month negotiation race to seal a free trade agreement before the approved transitional phase expires. President Michel insists that Member States will have to work hard to deliver a free-trade deal, but that they are ready to do so.
“We are ready, we know what the most important principles are that we want to defend and promote in the next phase. We also know what are the top priorities: the integrity of the single market, the level-playing field (in terms of competition) and the Good Friday Agreement”, says Michel.
For Ursula von der Leyen, the summit presents an opportunity to harness unity behind the bloc’s seven-year budget, which begins in 2021. The EU President is also eager to establish policy priorities for the Multiannual Financial Framework. Funding for this initiative was agreed upon in 2018, but much has changed since then, including the aforementioned ‘Green Deal’ as well as President von der Leyen’s call for a 30 percent increase in EU spending on foreign aid and outreach programmes. Meanwhile, Britain’s departure from the EU threatens massive financial implication, which could impact many of the Union’s goals and objectives.
COP25 Attendees Gather in Madrid
The United Nations Climate Summit, COP25, is being held from December 2nd to the 13th and has decamped to Madrid after having to abandon its original location in the Chilean capital of Santiago. It is expected that Von der Leyen will use the event to back up the EU Parliament’s recent declaration of a climate crisis by introducing the European Green Deal, an ambitious set of proposals which she believes form the focal point of her presidency.
It is believed that the Green Deal will amount to the most ambitious economic overhaul the world has yet seen, in a bid to stall the climate crisis. Though it is likely to be finalised at the upcoming European Council meeting, Von der Leyen addressed the scale of what will be required for an overhaul while in Madrid on Monday.
Under this initiative, state leaders will commit to having zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050 and must adjust to all policy making accordingly. The EU Commission will be responsible for enabling this drive, enacting a law next March that would “make the transition to climate neutrality irreversible”.
“If our common goal is to be a climate neutral continent in 2050, we have to act now. It’s a generational transition we have to go through”, said Von der Leyen.
Revisiting EU Enlargement
Both Presidents Michel and Von der Leyen are eyeing the upcoming council summit as an opportunity to put the idea of EU enlargement back on the table, following moves last October by France, Denmark and the Netherlands to block scheduled accession and membership talks with North Macedonia and Albania.
The decision caused fury throughout the Balkans, with Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, finding the rebuke particularly hard to swallow. This comes on the heels of having been told that accession talks would be part of the reward for ending their decades-old dispute with Greece over the use of the name Macedonia, with the announcement of the Prespa deal.
Germany was amongst the many EU states critical of stymieing enlargement in the Western Balkans, which is believed by many to be the key to keeping foreign influence from Russia, China, and the Gulf states, in nations such as North Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania and Kosovo at bay. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called the move to block accession an error, saying “I hope this mistake is going to be corrected”. Identifying Russia as a prime area of concern in terms of influence in the region, Mitsotakis added, “I was worried, I am worried and I will continue to be worried. That’s why I think the decision taken at the Council needs to be revisited in 2020”.
It is unlikely that enlargement will be able to make much impact on the agenda, with December’s summit seemingly dominated by COP25 and Brexit. January 2020, however, will see Croatia take the mantle of the EU Presidency for the first time, and Zagreb is sure to see this as an ideal opportunity to refocus Brussels on the challenges facing the Western Balkans and the EU’s role there.