After months of public wrangling and backroom discussions over the selection of the candidates for the vacancies of key institutional posts the EU is now finally in a position to address its mounting internal and external challenges with a new guard of official representatives. The selection process itself resembled very much the traditional style of backroom horse trading between heads of state which the public generally associates with the way business is done in the EU. Hopes which were raised in the run up to the May elections for the European Parliament that EU governments would genuinely conduct their business in a spirit of greater openness and collective solidarity were quickly dashed after the election had taken place. The fierce public dispute between national leaders on the selection of Jean-Claude Juncker as the new president of the European Commission effectively resulted in a stalemate at the special Brussels summit in July. The appointment of the new presidents of the Commission, the EU Council and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs were consequently delayed until the recent second special summit in August. The intermediate period was filled with speculations about intergovernmental deals for the appointment of these positions and public threats from the British government to veto Juncker’s appointment due to concerns that ‘a man from the 1980s’ would be unable to resolve the EU’s current challenges.The whole process ultimately resulted in Juncker’s appointment but left the UK and Hungary, who had both maintained their opposition to Juncker right until the end, isolated. The lack of unanimous support from EU leaders poses a question mark over how effectively the Juncker Commission will be able to implement a reform agenda which established a new universal consensus amongst national governments. This is highly problematic at a time when the EU faces growing and profound challenges.
Internally the EU is in a situation where it has become clear that the ambitious targets of the Europe 2020 Strategy in the area of education, training, research and development, social cohesion and environmental sustainability remain a distant ambition for many members states under persistent budgetary crisis conditions. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis and the subsequent eurozone sovereign debt crisis the EU hence remains trapped in a state of internal asymmetry. In practice this asymmetry manifests itself in a deepening centre-periphery divide both within the eurozone itself and also between the eurozone insiders and those countries who are currently on the outside. Inside the eurozone the crisis has created a cleavage between the core group of creditor countries spearheaded by Germany and the debtor countries who are predominantly situated in the Southern periphery. At the same time the multi-layered policy mechanisms, which EU leaders adopted in response to the eurozone crisis under the leadership of Angela Merkel, have created a new division in terms of the level of vertical policy coordination between the eurozone-18, the associated semi-periphery group of outsiders under the Euro Plus Pact and the Fiscal Compact and the relatively detached external periphery group. The latter group remains small and is currently only represented by the United Kingdom and the Czech Republic. Moreover there is a realistic possibility that the Czech Republic under the leadership of Social Democratic PM Bohuslav Sobotka is moving towards the semi-periphery, while Hungary led by eurosceptic PM Viktor Orbán gradually retreats towards the outer fringe.
This setup of fractured policy responsibilities presents the Juncker Commission with the additional challenge of maintaining policy cohesion in the Single Market of the currently 28 members and to avoid the detachment of a deepening eurozone core from the outsiders. Moreover the post-crisis policy mechanisms are excessively focused on the implementation of an effective supervisory regime of domestic policy-making with the purpose of ensuring overall budgetary and macroeconomic stability in the eurozone. This has resulted in clearly negative differentiation in terms of the levels of social cohesion inside the eurozone and also in the whole of the Single European Market. The continuing rigid pursuit of what Angela Merkel famously branded as the goal of turning the eurozone into a ‘stability union’ seriously neglects the mounting structural unemployment and poverty crisis in the eurozone’s periphery (including in Ireland) and in parts of Central and Eastern Europe. The result is a deepening public EU legitimacy crisis which is most pronounced in the periphery countries. It has started to affect public opinion even in the eurozone core group, as could be seen in the surge of support for eurosceptic populist parties such as the AfD in Germany and the fascist Front National in France in the EP elections.
Juncker and his new Commissioners are unlikely to be able to steer the EU towards a new more comprehensive agenda without the support of at least a majority of member states. In order to achieve this Juncker therefore has to work closely with the new president of the EU Commission Donald Tusk. The former Polish prime minister is a pragmatic pro-European who since Polish accession to the EU in 2004 has transformed his country from the position of passive policy-taker towards leading working partner. Tusk also has the advantage that he is taken seriously as an honest broker by those member state governments who remain sceptical towards deeper policy integration in the EU. Tusk will hence have a crucial role in ensuring that the EU makes fundamental changes to the way it conducts its business and at the same time broadens its policy agenda to ensure that the internal asymmetry does not become a permanent feature. The future success of the EU will substantially depend on ensuring that decision-making processes become more transparent and democratically accountable, less bureaucratic and more effective in terms of delivering concrete results in areas which citizens perceive as crucial for their daily lives. These include wages, working conditions and the general cost of living as well as access to affordable housing, healthcare, education, childcare and tangible results in the fight against crime.
Externally the EU is confronted with complex new challenges in its near abroad. The threat of the radical Islamic State terror groups, which are operating across the Middle East, has moved closer to the EU’s external borders and poses a potential domestic terrorist threat to countries in Europe. Even more concerning is the obvious attempt of Russia to destabilise the EU’s Eastern neighbour Ukraine. President Putin’s goal seems to be to achieve a secession of the Eastern part of Ukraine by providing military support to pro-Russian militias. On a wider scale the concern is that Putin pursues a strategy to expand Russia’s influence towards the EU’s Eastern neighbourhood. This comes at a time when the EU rather complacently restricts its external role to that of a civilian power. In practice this results in the profound neglect of military spending and a lack of commitment to the development of the EU’s institutional capabilities in the area of foreign and security policy. With the exception of the UK and France, EU member states generally seem to expect that the United States remain willing to step in as Europe’s security guarantor. The EU’s military burden sharing within NATO therefore remains as weak as its external representation. The post of High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy was strengthened under the provisions of the 2009 Lisbon Treaty by obtaining the dual role of Vice President of the European Commission and Chair of the Foreign Affairs Council as well as gaining the support of the newly created European External Action Service. At the same time it has become clear that EU governments are unwilling to transfer their foreign policy representation to the High Representative. National foreign ministers continue to dominate the EU’s external representation and the successive appointments of Ashton and Mogherini, both of whom came into the post with little experience of foreign and security affairs, reflect the desire to keep the profile of the High Representative relatively low. Ashton’s public profile as High Representative remained limited and she was repeatedly outmanoeuvred by national governments. The new HR former Italian foreign minister Federica Mogherini now has the opportunity to show that she can transform the post towards a more active and effective representation of national foreign and security policy interests. The biggest challenge for Mogherini nevertheless is to resolve the EU’s external credibility crisis which results from the lack of commitment of European leaders towards collectively addressing the hard security challenges presented by external crises. In her first statement Mogherini’s emphasised her view of the EU as a peace project and the expectation that it falls to NATO to ensure the security of the EU’s Eastern borders. This re-emphasises the concerns about NATO having factually turned into a ‘two-tier alliance between members who specialize in “soft” humanitarian, development, peacekeeping, and talking tasks, and those conducting the “hard” combat missions’ which US defence secretary Robert Gates voiced publicly during his farewell speech at NATO’s Brussels headquarters in June 2011. It is obvious that the Ukraine crisis and the growing security threat from Russia can only be effectively managed by a combined diplomatic and military approach. The collective decision of NATO to deploy a rapid response force at the EU’s external borders reflects this reality and it remains to be seen to what extent EU member states will engage in this vital operation. The EU collectively has a wide range of expertise in exercising effective civilian diplomacy and a number of member states, most of all Germany and the Central and Eastern Europeans, have wide-ranging economic and political ties with the EU’s Eastern neighbourhood. The Ukraine crisis hence presents the EU with the opportunity to show that it can indeed act as one and become a credible actor both in diplomatic and military terms. In this respect Mogherini’s ability to work closely with Tusk and Juncker in an effort to effectively pool national efforts towards enhancing the EU’s external profile over Ukraine and tackling the new security challenge in its Eastern neighbourhood will be of crucial importance.
The three new faces at the top of the EU’s leadership echelon have it in their hands to turn unprecedently testing times into a fresh start for the EU towards overcoming its internal and external credibility problem. For this purpose they have to liaise closely to ensure that the commitment-implementation gap national governments are notorious for when it comes to pursuing profound institutional, procedural and policy reforms in the EU can be overcome. Only if the EU resolves its internal identity crisis by reaching a compromise on the future shape and scope of the integration process which is universally shared by all member states will it be able to also address the lack of its shared external identity. In the words of the eminent Zbigniew Brzezinski at the 2013 Bratislava Global Security Forum, the EU needs to be ‘driven by the conviction that it will be truly geostrategically secure only when Europe becomes a genuine political entity, when Europe’s political institutions match its economic financial ones’.
To be able implement this in practice will be the challenge upon which the performance of Juncker, Tusk and Mogherini in their new posts will ultimately be judged.