The year ahead will set the course of Europe’s future political shape for many years to come. True, the euro crisis has not been fully handled, and it could return on an even larger scale at any moment. Yet the discussion in Europe has shifted away from ad hoc crisis management.

The debate over the long-term direction of the European political experiment will take center stage in 2014. And the choices EU leaders and citizens make for the union’s leadership positions will be the most visible indicators of where the journey is likely to go.

Leadership Changes

Jan Techau
Techau was the director of Carnegie Europe, the European center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Techau works on EU integration and foreign policy, transatlantic affairs, and German foreign and security policy.
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For the second time since international financial troubles emerged in 2008, the European Union will undergo a massive leadership change. Between May and November 2014, the jobs of president of the European Commission, president of the European Council, foreign policy high representative, and president of the European Parliament will all be up for grabs. EU citizens will also vote for their representatives in parliament.

The leadership changes will coincide with intense negotiations among EU member states over how to turn the improvised tools put in place to deal with the euro crisis into a more permanent system of EU economic governance. Banking union, fiscal union, and eurozone governance all sound rather technical, but they will have an enormous impact on whether the EU can solidify after the emergency years or will remain in a mode of hectic, ad hoc deals. Disputes over these issues are already passionate and will continue to be so throughout 2014.

European Commission President

It is widely believed that the choice of European Commission president will show whether EU leaders have any ambition left for the European integration process. Although often criticized for its overly zealous regulatory appetite, the commission is also the guardian of the single market, free trade, and fair competition in the EU.

Choosing a strong, independently minded reformist president who reinstates the commission’s former strength, while tackling some of its enormous weaknesses, could send multiple signals. The appointment could provide encouragement for integrationists who (rightfully) expect the commission to be the pulse generator of EU affairs, while at the same time showing openness to skeptics who (just as rightfully) believe that regulation has been somewhat excessive and that some things are best dealt with by the member states.

Foreign Policy High Representative

Foreign policy junkies will be watching very carefully who is nominated to succeed Catherine Ashton as the EU foreign policy bigwig. Despite a few handsome diplomatic accomplishments over the last year, Ashton is largely seen as a weak high representative who neither managed to turn the newly established European External Action Service into a fully functioning institution nor provided the political leadership to shape the EU’s foreign policy agenda.

The EU’s southern and eastern neighborhoods are in tatters, its defense weaknesses are looming large, and its approach to Asia is uncoordinated. At the same time, talks on Iran’s nuclear program are entering another round, and a transatlantic free-trade deal is under negotiation.

Amid all this, the EU will need strong leadership on foreign affairs in 2014. Much will depend on whether the EU can find a more ambitious, diplomatically savvy, and bureaucratically gifted candidate for high representative this time around.

European Parliament

The range of issues on the EU’s agenda is likely to impact elections to the European Parliament, which will take place across the EU from May 22 to 25. The newly elected parliament will have substantial influence over EU personnel choices, even though it is unclear whether the parliament can dictate its preferred candidate for commission president. This power struggle over leadership choices will have a strong impact on interinstitutional politics in the EU for years to come.

Furthermore, observers expect a large number of the newly elected members of the European Parliament to be Euroskeptic populists of various sorts, a result whose overall impact on EU politics remains unclear. Combined with a (widely expected) low voter turnout, the European Parliament elections could easily turn into another unfortunate symptom of European political malaise.

Member States Ask for Answers

In the coming year, the EU will come under intense pressure, both from within its own institutions and from its member states, to provide clarity on where it wants to go constitutionally and in terms of political reform.

The British domestic debate on Europe will keep alive the issue of fundamental political reform of the EU. Prime Minister David Cameron’s political survival at home will, to a large degree, depend on whether he can deliver on his promise to “repatriate” significant chunks of regulatory competences from the EU back to the member states. On that front, don’t forget that a referendum on Scottish independence that is scheduled for September 18 will have an impact on the overall British political debate—and therefore on the EU as a whole.

To bolster member state powers, Cameron will continue to press for a substantial political deal that would most likely need fundamental EU treaty change. He believes that he has Germany on his side in the effort.

But the overall likelihood of comprehensive treaty change is almost certainly much lower than he thinks. Many member states are violently opposed to such a revision, not least because they fear opening Pandora’s box. Once one element of the EU’s intricate founding document, the Lisbon Treaty, is challenged, the whole deal could unravel. And that could lead to a prolonged period of bazaar-like haggling. Going through this process in times of economic crisis and populist electoral temptations is a prospect that most in Europe dread.

Then there are the worries that all of Europe shares about the state of affairs in France, where a much-needed economic and political reform agenda has stalled because of the government’s exceptional weakness. Given France’s key role in discussions on the future of the EU, Paris-watching will be a crucial—and most likely painful—pastime in 2014.

To further fill out the EU’s domestic political calendar for 2014, ardent Europeanists will no doubt welcome Latvia’s entry into the eurozone with much fanfare when the Baltic nation becomes the eighteenth country to adopt the common currency on January 1. And, just for the record, there will be either parliamentary or presidential elections in Slovakia (March), Hungary (April), Lithuania, Belgium (both in May), Sweden (September), and Romania (November).

A Truly Daunting Foreign Policy Agenda

In the EU’s eastern neighborhood, the geopolitical contest with Russia over access and influence in Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova will continue. Before the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius in the fall of 2013, the EU wanted to conduct its affairs in its usual, technical way by negotiating association agreements and trade deals that would bring eastern states closer to the union. Russia’s rather aggressive reaction and the domestic political uncertainties in some countries of the Eastern Partnership—which also includes Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Belarus—have rendered this cautious approach obsolete.

The EU now finds itself in a tug-of-war in the region, and the crucial question will be whether it has the resources and the political will to stay in this tough game of power politics. Much will depend on how the domestic situation plays out in Ukraine in the coming months. Should a more pro-Western course prevail in the country’s internal disputes, the EU will have to answer to that development both decisively and sensitively.

And the EU will be challenged on Georgia and Moldova as well. Both countries initialed agreements with the EU in Vilnius that they will have to sign at some point in 2014. It is expected that Russia will step up its pressure on both nations to prevent them from sealing the deal. The future path of these countries and the region will largely depend on the EU adopting a smart and resolute position in the coming year.

Naturally, all of this will also impact the EU’s bilateral relationship with Russia, which is already tense because of a European Commission antitrust case against Russian energy giant Gazprom. Recently, the commission ruled that a large number of gas contracts between Gazprom and its EU counterparts violated EU law. The resolution of this issue will absorb much political attention in Brussels and elsewhere in Europe in 2014.

To Europe’s south, the situation is even more dramatic, but the EU’s ability to exert influence in the Middle East and North Africa is considerably smaller than in the east. Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Libya all find themselves in various degrees of conflict, civil war, or at least domestic instability—and that is not to mention the lingering Israeli-Palestinian discord. In all of these conflicts, the EU has found itself in a very weak position, partly because of the nature of the conflicts, partly because of its limited means, and partly because of its own choosing.

The EU will likely continue to play a diplomatic role in its southern neighborhood, especially in Egypt, where it was very active in 2013. But it is unlikely to be the decisive player. Much in the region will depend on American, not European, diplomacy.

The same is probably true for diplomatic efforts on Iran’s nuclear program. The EU played a very constructive role in the run-up to the interim agreement struck between the West and Tehran in the fall of 2013. Ultimately, however, the primary deal makers on a possible final agreement will have to be the United States and Iran.

Then there is Turkey. For a long time, Ankara was barely a blip on the EU’s radar screen. The events of 2013 changed that, with both domestic setbacks for democratic development in Turkey and fresh hope of a revitalized process for the country’s accession to the EU. With a presidential election scheduled for August and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan becoming an ever less predictable political player, the EU will be hard-pressed to find smart diplomatic answers to the Turkey question.

Questions of Common Defense

Of course, the EU is not alone in influencing European foreign policy. NATO comes into play as well, and the alliance will face pressing issues in the wake of its withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014. Leading up to the alliance’s next summit on September 4 and 5 in Wales, the discussion on the future of security and defense in Europe and across the Atlantic will intensify.

The list of pressing issues is long. Can a post-Afghanistan NATO adapt once more to the changing security needs of its members? Can “smart defense,” the alliance’s stab at pooling and sharing military capabilities, be brought to a new, more meaningful level? NATO and its members will struggle to maintain combat readiness in times of continuing budget cuts and to retain some of the skills the alliance acquired throughout a decade of joint operations in Afghanistan. An overarching concern will be finding a new narrative for NATO that sounds convincing to war-weary publics. Europeans as a whole will have to find new ways to keep their transatlantic partners engaged in their own security concerns. And finally, of course, is the question of who will succeed Anders Fogh Rasmussen as the next secretary general of NATO.

So it is not only the EU that will have a leadership debate next year. And, given the unwritten rules of proportionality in Europe, whichever country gets the NATO job is unlikely to get one of the prized EU posts. As always, everything is connected with everything else in the old world.

Finally Strategy?

As if to confirm the strategic relevance of the foreseeable agenda for 2014, the European Council, the EU’s most important decisionmaking body, did an unusual thing on December 20, 2013. It gave the EU foreign policy supremo the mandate to create, for the first time, a comprehensive EU foreign policy strategy. Even though no final document will be drawn up in 2014, the assessment process and bureaucratic haggling over what such a strategy could look like will start in the coming year and keep the European foreign policy community busy.

The timing could not be better. With a new leadership crew being selected over the course of the year, and so many big issues on the agenda, there is, at long last, some hope that Europe will start going beyond the tactical and reactive in its foreign posture. Events will still drive foreign policy, but in 2014, there is a real chance that they will be accompanied by some long-term, structural thinking. Outside the busy agenda, this could be a small revolution for a truly Strategic Europe.