New EU trio is now complete, what next?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Jean-Claude Juncker [EPP/Flickr]

New EU leaders Jean-Claude Juncker, Donald Tusk and Federica Mogherini face hard times, and deserve our support, writes Fraser Cameron.

Fraser Cameron is a Senior Advisor to Cambre Associates and a former British diplomat and EU official.

The EU’s top trio of leaders is now complete. On 30 August, a special meeting of the European Council unanimously agreed that Donald Tusk, the prime minister of Poland, would succeed Herman van Rompuy as the next President of the EU’s top decision-making body. Tusk is arguably the most senior politician ever appointed to head an EU institution. Having agreed on a second centre-right politician (after Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the European Commission) EU leaders plumped for the centre-left Italian foreign minister, Federica Mogherini, as the next High Representative to succeed Cathy Ashton. Both appointments confirm the dominant power balance of the centre right (EPP) and centre-left (S&D) in European politics. It should lead to a relatively easy confirmation process for the new Commissioners in the European Parliament, provided there are sufficient women.

In appointing the experienced Polish prime minister, the decade-long divide between ‘old and new member states’ should finally cease. Tusk has been a strong prime minister and achieved something most of his peers have failed to do, namely winning re-election at home. As he admitted at the post-summit press conference, his language skills are weak and he promised to devote time to ensuring that by December, he can chair meetings and hold press briefings in English. But Tusk has demonstrated many other political skills, including an ability to forge compromises and a determination to push through necessary but unpopular policies. Tusk also has considerable experience of the Eastern neighbourhood, which should prove invaluable in light of the current conflict with Russia over Ukraine. Importantly, he has a good relationship with Angela Merkel, and most of his colleagues in the European Council, including Hollande and Cameron. A spat with Cameron over welfare migrants has been forgotten, as Tusk said he could not imagine a European Union without the UK. He will have a crucial role to play in charting a reform path that keeps the UK and others on board during the next five years.

This was one of the three top priorities he outlined at his press conference. The others were steering the European economy out of recession, and ensuring peace in the neighbourhood. Poland has enjoyed a good economic growth record in recent years, but it remains to be seen whether Tusk can persuade leaders in France, Spain and Italy to follow the path of Poland and Germany. Hollande, Rajoy and Renzi are all finding it easier to talk about reforms rather than implementing reforms. 

The appointment of Tusk also facilitated the nomination of the relatively young (41) Federica Mogherini. There had been doubts about her inexperience and alleged weakness towards Russia. But she has been in politics for over two decades and wrote a thesis on political Islam, rather useful background in today’s world. She speaks fluent English and French and has excellent networks in the think tank world. Foreign policy decisions are still the prerogative of member states, and it is the role of the High Representative to implement them and to represent the EU to the outside world. She is well liked by her EU ministerial colleagues, and although only six months in office, has been a good chair of meetings. 

Mogherini also takes over leadership of the EU’s diplomatic service, which is steadily developing its role and becoming the face of the EU around the world. One of her main tasks, however, will be to ensure that she wears her Vice President of the Commission hat, and seeks to integrate the external dimension of Commission policies with the EEAS. Many think the failure to integrate the Commission and EEAS was Ashton’s biggest failure. It will not be easy to ensure such coordination, but the walls that have been established between some of the Commission’s empires and the EEAS will have to be dismantled. 

On the policy front, Mogherini will seek to use her position as chair of the foreign affairs council to establish priorities. Given her background, we can expect more prominence to be given to the Southern Mediterranean and wider Middle East. But the EU’s range of options is limited, as we saw in the approach to Egypt, Libya, Iraq and Syria. The top priority will remain Russia, and how to persuade Putin that borders cannot be changed by force; and if they are there will be a heavy price to pay. So far, the EU has been remarkably united on the need for a firm stance against Russia. But there are important differences just below the surface, and Mogherini will have a tough job to preserve a united approach.

The EU’s new leaders thus face a number of difficult challenges – the weak economy, the burning neighbourhood and the threat of an UK exit. The omens are not particularly good. Juncker and Tusk are hardly the charismatic leaders to regenerate popular support for the institutions. Most economic levers are in the hands of the member states, but there are divisions, especially between France and Germany, on the right mix of austerity and debt. Russia hardly looks cowed by EU sanctions so far. And Mogherini takes over at a time when the power balance in the world is changing rapidly, and the EU is surrounded by instability and strife.

But all three may surprise. Juncker is a veteran backroom fixer par excellence, who knows the institutions backwards. Tusk has a steely determination, as befits someone who helped overthrow communism in Poland in the 1980s, and went on to become a successful prime minister. Mogherini is a fast learner, has a much stronger foreign policy background than Ashton had, and can reach out to a younger generation.

The new leaders will not have an easy ride, but then they are the leaders we now have – and deserve our support.

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