Look ahead to 2024: What to expect from the EU over the next year

Mon 11 Dec 2023
Posted by: Phillip Adnett
Trade News

There is little doubt that 2024 will be a year of change for the EU, as European elections loom and the bloc picks its next president.

The IOE&IT Daily Update spoke to Fergus McReynolds, EU public affairs lead at the Institute of Export & International Trade (IOE&IT), about the likely direction of European policy in 2024, including the impact of politics on international trade and the possible shape of the European Commission (EC) after next June’s elections.

EU elections

Across the EU, voters will go to the polls in June 2024 to elect the next European Parliament. There are seven major political groupings, ranging from the far-right Identity and Democracy (ID) to the liberal Renew and the Greens/European Free Alliance (GFA).

Just over 700 parliamentarians will be elected from all EU states. Polling is complicated and the results are likely to depend on the political climate in each country, but there appears to be a clear trend in recent months.

Although there are over six months to go before ballots are cast, McReynolds says the early indications are the election will be “dominated by questions around European migration policy”.

“It's clear the direction of travel for now, internally, is enlargement of the EU. If that becomes a key theme in the election, which I anticipate it will, there’ll certainly be strong opposition to it.”

Europe Elects, a poll aggregation project, has a European Parliament projection that currently predicts a “record high” for the far-right ID, although it suggests the centre right European People’s Party (EPP) and centre-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) would be first and second respectively.

ID are currently battling Renew and GFA for third place, according to these projections, although this could change as the political climate in each country shifts.

Policy impact

The EU elections could impact EU policy in a number of ways.

Ukraine has been talked up as a likely candidate for entry into the EU, but there remains scepticism on it happening, notably from some European leaders such as Hungary’s Victor Orban, who remains resolutely opposed to any expansion and is regarded as one of the most pro-Russian leaders in Europe. As McReynolds explains,

“We'll start to see the lists of European parties come out over the course of the next two or three months. Those manifestos for the elections are being published between now and the end of the first quarter of 2024.”

The focus on expansion, migration and EU reform will likely mean that the discussion moves away from trade, says McReynolds:

“The space for conversations about international trade and seeking new trade deals is likely to play second fiddle, because enlargement and reform of the EU go hand-in-hand and are such existential questions for the Union itself that if that is the focus, it will be an all-encompassing focus.”

The EU will still be discussing trade and customs reforms, however.

“We've got a piece of primary legislation going through on reforming the European Customs Code and the establishment of a customs authority,” says McReynolds.

“There is anticipation, or certainly hope, that that will be concluded in this mandate and that will set the tone in terms of trade.”

Madam president?

EC president Ursala von der Leyen has yet to publicly signal her intention to stand for a second term.

Thanasis Bakolas, secretary general of the EPP, of which von der Leyen is a member, said he was “confident” his party’s national leaders would back her for a second term.

The EC president is elected by the EU Parliament after the latest set of elections. In recent years, each main political grouping has nominated a ‘lead candidate’ (or Spitzenkandidat) prior to the elections.

McReynolds says von der Leyen probably had the best chance of becoming president, relying on the power of incumbency, but adds “you would have to be a significantly more confident betting man than I am to put any money on anyone at the moment”.

Von der Leyen was not named as a lead candidate in 2019, but instead emerged as a compromise candidate after the leads in the 2019 elections lacked the support necessary to secure approval from parliament. “Her re-election is not a given by any stretch of the imagination,” says McReynolds.

The results of the US elections are also likely to have a “huge impact” on the EU’s external policy.

“Broadly speaking, I'm not sure that international trade and the progression of new agreements is going to be a core priority,” he says. “I think it will be more internally focused than externally focused.”