Influential think tank speculates on EU’s future

EU elections 2024

Published 16 June 2024
- By Editorial Staff
Matthias Matthijs does not believe that the radical right or left has any chance of influencing EU policy.

Matthias Matthijs is an associate professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins University and a senior fellow at one of the most influential geopolitical think tanks in the US and the world – the Council on Foreign Relations.

Although many nationalist and anti-EU parties did well in the recent elections, he argues that most indications are that the incumbent center-right alliance and its liberal allies will retain a majority of seats and, despite some concerns and difficulties, will continue to set the agenda in Brussels and decide the direction of the EU.

In an analysis, he asks whether European voters have indeed “hamstrung the EU” and “jeopardized the continent’s agenda” by voting for anti-EU and patriotic parties such as National Unity and Alternative for Germany.

“But although the election marked an undeniable rightward shift, mainly at the expense of green and liberal parties, the much-feared far-right populist surge largely failed to materialize”, he notes.

He points out that the turnout of just over 50% was still well above the 2014 low of 43%, and argues that the election results nevertheless “underlines the salience of the EU for European voters’ everyday lives”.

Matthijs points out that in Germany, both the Social Democrats and the more environmentalist and liberal parties did very badly, with the AfD succeeding – but that “the biggest cloud of uncertainty now hangs over France” – where Macron’s left-liberal alliance got less than 15% of the vote – compared to 31% for the National Rally.

Marine Le Pen’s “National Rally” made a great choice. Photo: European Parliament/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Although largely pro-European centrists will hold a majority in the European Parliament, the results of the EU elections may well herald a new era for the continent—one in which France and Germany, embroiled in their own domestic political battles, may not be able to provide the leadership they customarily have. Instead, the EU election could augur a period of uncertainty and volatility about the future direction of European integration, just at a time when the EU can least afford it”, he notes.

Von der Leyen could gain new confidence

He argues that Ursula von der Leyen’s “center-right” was the big winner of the election, with the EPP holding 186 seats. Together with its traditional partners among the left and right liberals, it holds more than 450 of the 720 seats in the European Parliament.

“The antiestablishment Euroskeptic parties on both the far left and the far right performed well but did not see the level of electoral successes that would have allowed them to become part of an actual governing coalition that could wield direct influence over EU policy”, he assesses, pointing out that the success of the opposition in France, Germany and Austria is likely to have an impact on domestic politics in those countries in particular, but will also keep the parties busy with internal disputes.

Matthijs adds that both the left and the radical right in Brussels are “deeply divided”, and that several new coalitions may emerge and defections from existing groups are likely. He thinks they are unlikely to unite in their opposition to the EU, and even if they do, they have too few seats to make much difference to the strongly pro-EU liberal parties.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen Photo: EU/Dati Bendo/CC BY 4.0

“With the European People’s Party family having done well overall, von der Leyen is in a strong position to reprise her role as president of the European Commission for the next five years. With the exception of Macron, who will likely remain preoccupied as the country prepares to go to the polls again to elect a new national assembly and government in the coming weeks, European leaders will be keen to move quickly and fill the top EU positions — whose occupants help determine the EU’s policy agenda and institutional direction — before the end of June”.

EU expected to expand

Matthias Matthijs argues that Germany and France largely determine the EU’s future and agenda, and that very little happens in the Union when the two countries disagree. He also says that Europe faces difficult challenges in the next five years – including Ukraine’s EU membership and pushing through institutional reforms.

“In recent years, the EU has announced plans to expand its membership by up to ten new member states, including Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine; reform its institutions to make them fit for a larger union in a world rife with competition; and draft a new seven-year budget to realize those ambitions”, he writes, arguing that while von der Leyen has worked to “turn the EU into a major geoeconomic actor”, this work is only “half done”.

It is considered likely that Ukraine will become an EU member. Photo: European Commission/Dati Bendo

“Compared with the last major round of EU enlargement, in 2004, expanding EU membership will have even bigger consequences for how the body will be financed and governed. Admitting Ukraine alone would make most, if not all, members net contributors to the EU budget rather than net recipients. Most of the current EU candidate countries are far from meeting the traditional economic and political criteria for membership—including functioning free-market institutions, respect for the rule of law, a fully independent judiciary, and broad press freedoms”, he notes, adding that the EU “will have to devise a formula that rewards candidate countries for making good progress and deters them from backsliding”.

More money needed

Matthijs says EU leaders need to think about how such an enlarged union will work without the constant threat of national vetoes leading to deadlock on issues, pointing to Viktor Orban’s Hungary as a recent example.

He also points out that EU leaders will have to find new imaginative ways to increase their common budget to finance their ambitions for a common EU defense, fossil-free energy and renewed productivity growth.

Another issue that will be in the spotlight next year is whether the EU can continue to rely on its American patron’s security guarantees through NATO.

Much could change if Trump becomes US president. Photo: Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 2.0

“Regardless of who is in the White House come January 2025, there is sure to be more, not less, transatlantic discord over trade, industrial policy, and defense. The EU faces pressure to do more on all fronts. That would have been a daunting challenge for the EU, even with France and Germany leading the charge. But with Paris and Berlin now locked in major domestic battles, it will be an even steeper hill to climb”.

TNT is truly independent!

We don’t have a billionaire owner, and our unique reader-funded model keeps us free from political or corporate influence. This means we can fearlessly report the facts and shine a light on the misdeeds of those in power.

Consider a donation to keep our independent journalism running…