Elections and a challenging time for Europe

The European Union faces a difficult patch in 2024. In the extreme, some of its historical developments could be rolled back and ambitious policies diluted.

European Parliamentary elections
Brussels, January 24, 2024: The European Parliament displays a large announcement for the June 6-9 elections in all EU member countries this year. © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • The EU’s political center is likely to shift toward the right
  • External developments may deliver shocks to Europe
  • The EU project is resilient, not all scenarios for 2024 are dire

This could be a make-or-break year for the European Union. The election to choose the European Parliament and nine national contests will most likely see the relative decline of mainstream parties and the rise of populist challengers in 2024. However, external shocks, including two wars on its doorstep and the United States presidential election, could have a more significant impact on Europe’s future.

A multi-election year

Parliamentary elections in nine European countries, as well as the highly symbolic European Parliament election in June and a probable United Kingdom election, will shape the political landscape in 2024. Elections also take place around the world, including in the U.S., Russia, Ukraine, Taiwan, India, Indonesia and Mexico.

The U.S. election could confront the EU with the need to take its security and defense more soberly. It could also change prospects for pursuing the bloc’s trademark policies on green energy, digital and human rights issues internationally. With some exceptions, elections in member states are likely to increase overall support for anti-EU, radical and nationalist parties. Regional and local elections may tip majorities to the right.

The June race for the European Parliament could be a turning point in the balance between parties committed to European integration, democracy and human rights and those questioning them. The center-right, the socialists and the greens will bear the brunt of the electorate’s mood swing. It will be hard to convince voters of the importance of these elections as they are likely, again, to be fought mainly on national issues. A low turnout would favor extremists.

But parties committed to democratic principles and the rule of law will probably still form a majority, albeit reduced, divided and re-balanced, in the European assembly.

Nonetheless, the EU’s future agenda is bound to see more emphasis on protecting European industry, agriculture, jobs, purchasing power and borders, and less on climate, the environment, free trade and support for democracies abroad. This year will show whether China, the U.S. and other countries are ready to take the EU’s groundbreaking new law regulating artificial intelligence as a model. Beijing and Washington are unlikely to share the priority that grants the EU a high level of protection.

After the parliamentary elections, EU government leaders will negotiate a package deal on top appointments, including the European Commission and European Council presidents, the EU’s foreign policy chief and with NATO allies will select the new NATO secretary general.

The EU’s evolution in 2024 could well be shaped by unpredictable shocks, including terrorist attacks, military clashes, public health emergencies and humanitarian catastrophes.

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will probably announce her intention to run for a second five-year term in March when the European People’s Party chooses its lead candidate for the parliamentary elections.

‘Known unknowns’

The U.S. presidential election in November will be critical for the future of NATO, the United Nations and, indeed, the EU. The past four years of President Joe Biden’s administration, for all its brushes with the EU, may prove to have been an interlude of relative transatlantic harmony. A second presidency of Donald Trump would erect new trade barriers with Europe and pressure-test Europe’s unity, including its willingness to take greater responsibility for its own security and defense. That could encourage more bellicose brinkmanship by Russian President Vladimir Putin and slash support for Ukraine.

The UK elections, likely to be held in the autumn, with the Labour Party probably forming the next British government, may bring cautious moves toward closer cooperation with Europe, especially on foreign and security policies. But Labour’s reluctance to risk alienating euroskeptic voters casts doubt on the extent of such collaboration.

Beyond these “known unknowns,” the EU’s evolution in 2024 could well be shaped by unpredictable shocks, including terrorist attacks, military clashes, public health emergencies and humanitarian catastrophes. Europe’s resilience in coping with such shocks in a year already dominated by conflict when the leadership of so many institutions and governments will change hands may be put to a demanding trial.

Daunting domestic challenges

Europe’s internal problems are numerous. Illiberal ideologies, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and demonstrations against the EU’s liberal trade policies and environmental laws will expand in 2024. This will be taking place against the background of the wars in Europe’s immediate neighborhood, the high cost of living and fears about immigration. Mainstream parties will struggle to defeat extremist challengers without resorting to populism themselves. As a result, this year will bring a growing normalization of views previously considered beyond the pale. That will be reflected in election results at both the national and EU levels.

Demonstration against immigration law

France, political street protest
Paris, January 14, 2024: France’s New Anticapitalistic Party, which plans to run as part of the “Disobedient France” leftist coalition for the European elections, marches against the immigration law. © Getty Images

Economic constraints will hamper the ability of mainstream parties to offer the electorate attractive incentives. Growth will be weak because of higher interest rates aimed at controlling inflation, pervasive uncertainty and China’s economic difficulties. The new debt and deficit rules agreed by finance ministers in December 2023 encourage eurozone countries to limit spending, though they may not always follow this guidance.

In the 2024 races, opposition politicians will exploit public anxieties about immigration, the cost of living and jobs to mobilize voters.

Divergences between Berlin and Paris regard the supply of war materiel for Ukraine, trade, industrial policy, energy and eurozone governance.

Political leaders will strain to engage voters – worried about living standards and immigration – with the EU’s emblematic climate, digital and human rights agenda. Climate goals may be contested or ignored as politicians on the campaign trail champion cheaper energy and promise more subsidies. The EU’s new pact on migration and asylum will be helpful but insufficient to stem unauthorized immigration.

Europe’s ‘engine’ partnership

The Franco-German partnership remains the driving force behind European integration but will face further obstacles. The governments in Berlin and Paris are unpopular, limiting their room for maneuver. The German finance minister says that the country faces a 17-billion-euro budget gap in 2024. The shaky three-party German coalition is constrained by the November ruling of the German Constitutional Court on the permissible use of public funds.

France has a minority government (albeit led by a new young prime minister) surviving vote by vote in parliament. Divergences between Berlin and Paris regard the supply of war materiel for Ukraine, trade, industrial policy, energy and eurozone governance. Germany has abandoned nuclear energy, while France is building an alliance of pro-nuclear power countries. Nonetheless, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron have an interest in bridging their differences.

Cracks on the crown achievement

Some observers question the sustainability of the single market. In place remain the exceptions to the free circulation people, goods, services and capital within the single market and the Schengen system of open internal borders granted to cope with Covid-19 pandemic and the Ukraine war emergencies. France and Germany account for more than three-quarters of the industrial subsidies in the EU, raising questions about the EU’s level playing field for business. Electricity subsidies and France’s state-guaranteed loans for smaller firms may further distort competition. Yet, in an election year and faced with frequent demonstrations, the French government will be reluctant to phase out such benefits.

Read more on Europe’s lurking risks

This will also be a year when the extension to the digital field of the “Brussels effect” – the acceptance of the European regulatory model – will be tested. The European Commission seems set on using its power as it begins to enforce the Digital Services Act, challenging X (formerly Twitter) for failing to monitor content properly. In 2024, specific ports (USB-C) will be required for all new electronic devices under the latest EU digital rules. Accordingly, Apple has decided to abandon its proprietary “lightning” connector worldwide. Together with the General Data Protection Regulation, which claims to defend users’ privacy, the Brussels effect implies that the EU has the power to set or influence global standards. However, according to Anu Bradford, a leading international trade expert, Chinese and American reactions will show whether they are ready to accept the EU’s forthcoming Artificial Intelligence Act as a model.

External relations in uncertain times

The hostilities in Ukraine and Gaza will again dominate the year. In Ukraine, a war of attrition rather than of movement is likely to continue, with Kyiv continuing to resist Russian attacks if Europe and the U.S. provide sufficient support.

The opening of EU membership talks in 2024 with Ukraine and Moldova will be hailed as a geopolitical breakthrough, but making progress in these talks will not be easy.

The EU will contend with dissenters in its midst, notably Hungary, which assumes the European Council’s rotating presidency in the second half of the year. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban eventually agreed to a 50-billion-euro package of economic assistance for Ukraine from the EU against promises to go easy on his country’s rule-of-law misconduct. But he may again seek to extract concessions against any further support for Ukraine or new sanctions against Russia. Other European governments will be relieved that the powers of the rotating Council presidency are limited.

The opening of EU membership talks in 2024 with Ukraine and Moldova will be hailed as a geopolitical breakthrough. However, making progress in these talks will not be easy. The renewed momentum given to enlargement negotiations by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will face obstacles both in the candidate countries and in the EU itself.

Other challenges

The Western Balkans, too, will keep their sights fixed on the EU. But penetration by China, Russia and other outside powers will continue there. At the same time, governance problems and conflicts within the area persist, leading the EU to experiment with interim incentives that some may fear become alternatives to membership.

The Israel-Hamas war and its aftermath will continue to stir divisions within and between EU members in 2024. As Israel is seeking to bring hostages home and eradicate Hamas, European governments will ratchet up their calls for protection of civilians, facilitation of humanitarian aid and acceptance of a lasting cease-fire. Israel will chafe at such calls as overlooking its security vulnerability that was underscored by the October 2023 Hamas attack. The fighting, however, is likely to be scaled down in the first quarter of the year to address international concerns and reduce risks of a broader conflagration in the region.

The EU, traditionally a significant source of assistance to the Palestinians, will be asked to contribute to reconstruction in Gaza, along with the Gulf states and the U.S. That, however, would require a cessation of hostilities and credible arrangements for post-war governance – both of which are herculean tasks. The risk of additional migration pressures could encourage Europeans to mobilize finance for this massive endeavor.

Other major challenges in 2024 will come from Russia, China, the U.S., Turkey and the Middle East, as well as developing and emerging countries. The enduring threat from Iran will probably become more salient because of Tehran’s support for Russia, Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis who are threatening shipping in the Red Sea. The CIA director has warned that Iran may be only weeks away from enriching uranium to the level needed for an atomic weapon. But any fresh efforts in Europe to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran will be fraught with difficulties.

The EU’s efforts to use trade negotiations to achieve non-trade objectives, such as human rights, climate and environmental goals, will backfire.

Significant trade frictions with the U.S. will be avoided until the November presidential election, but differences on climate-related taxes and subsidies and on confronting China will endure. European business leaders will urge caution on policy toward China as they are anxious to preserve market share and access to supply chains while trying to diversify sources of critical materials. Europeans will urge Taiwan’s Lai Ching-te, elected president in January 2024 and who will take office in May, to tamp down tensions with Beijing for fear of military clashes between the U.S. and China over the island’s future, with repercussions throughout the Indo-Pacific.

Developing and emerging countries will use the expanded BRICS and other forums to play Beijing and Moscow against Brussels and Washington. However, differences among participants will limit the impact of such stratagems. European countries will attempt to raise their game on development assistance and investment to reduce migratory pressures, especially from Africa. But they will fail to provide enough support to make a sufficient difference.

Multi-alignment policies

The EU’s efforts to use trade negotiations to achieve non-trade objectives, such as human rights, climate and environmental goals, will backfire, calling into question its role as defender of an open international economic system. At the same time, critics will question its unconditional engagement with non-democratic countries, like Algeria and Azerbaijan, which are important alternative sources of oil and gas. The EU will be accused of protectionism for its new carbon import taxes (due to be collected from 2026), leading other states to retaliate or introduce similar schemes.

Income disparities, conflicts and migratory pressures make North Africa a potential flashpoint for the EU.

Turkey, itself a practitioner of “multi-alignment,” will question Europe’s opening to Ukraine, Moldova and the Western Balkans while its own EU prospects stagnate. This might lead Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to threaten to withhold cooperation on migration. Turkish municipal elections in March, in the context of sounder economic policies, provide an opportunity for the president to try to consolidate his position. However, there is considerable pushback from opposition parties. Electoral success would embolden President Erdogan to use his military and commercial links with Russia to strike positions on regional issues at variance with those of the EU and NATO and to offer his services as a mediator in international conflicts.

Income disparities, conflicts and migratory pressures make North Africa a potential flashpoint for the EU. European resilience and common purpose may also be put to the test by developments in the Indo-Pacific, especially if tensions grow between China and Taiwan.

Faltering U.S. aid for Ukraine and Washington’s preoccupation with East Asia will revive calls for Europe to take more responsibility for its security. However, divergent threat perceptions among the 27 EU member states and budgetary constraints will limit any significant moves toward building an independent European military capability.



These challenges point to three possible paths that the EU might take in the year ahead.

Path 1: Renewed European solidarity

Despite war weariness, continuing European and U.S. support for Ukraine paves the way for a cease-fire in the Ukraine-Russia war. EU membership talks and reconstruction plans gain momentum, also giving a boost to stalled negotiations with Western Balkan countries.

Meanwhile, the Israel-Gaza war winds down, permitting humanitarian assistance, governance reforms and international reconstruction support from the EU and other donors.

In European elections, populist gains remain limited, with mainstream parties retaining their dominance. Internal border controls between EU countries are gradually relaxed.

France and Germany bridge their differences. The EU’s asylum and migration pact prevents humanitarian disaster and slows migration flows. The EU fine-tunes its green and digital agendas. Permitted exceptions to single market and Schengen rules are phased down. Inflation recedes further, economic growth and job prospects improve, and the U.S. election outcome fails to shake European unity and transatlantic cooperation. The new British government favors closer engagement with Europe, especially on security and defense.

Path 2: A Perilous road ahead

Russia intensifies military pressure in Ukraine, while the flow of armaments from the EU and U.S. allies slows to a trickle. EU unity on sanctions frays.

EU countries hesitate to move toward admitting Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia as skepticism grows over anti-corruption and pro-democracy measures in the candidate countries. Hungary and others delay negotiations, facilitating further Russian and Chinese penetration.

The Israel-Gaza war drags on, threatening to expand to Lebanon and exacerbating divisions within and between European states.

Mainstream parties cling to power across Europe by adopting elements of the opposition’s proposals, particularly on immigration. The EU’s asylum and migration pact proves inadequate, leading to calls for externalizing asylum procedures with processing centers overseas. Internal border controls tighten among European countries.

Support for the EU’s green and digital policies wanes while prominent member states tilt the single market in their favor through generous subsidies. Franco-German differences on budget and industrial policy persist. Economic growth and innovation continue to lag behind China and the U.S.

The incoming EU leadership fails to revitalize European integration. The new U.K. Labour government proves indecisive. The U.S. elections pose a significant challenge to transatlantic unity, encouraging Chinese and Russian ambitions. Baltic, Nordic and Central and Eastern European countries fear a wider European war.

Path 3: Piecemeal progress

National budgets in Europe prioritize support for Ukraine, boosting its war effort as well as economic growth and job creation in the EU. Russian resilience comes under strain, with Ukraine’s forces preventing further encroachment. A de facto armistice is concluded after the U.S. elections, followed by the launch of an economic reconstruction plan for Ukraine, financed by the EU, the U.S. and development banks. Nonetheless, Russia retains control of Ukrainian territory to the east and the south, and there are periodic local outbreaks of hostilities.

Membership talks with Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and the Western Balkan countries advance slowly. Increased financial support and observer or participant status are offered to these countries in EU institutions, specialized agencies and the single market, leaving open the question of their eventual EU membership.

The all-out Israel-Hamas war draws to a close in the spring. The Netanyahu government is replaced. New governance arrangements for Gaza without Hamas are agreed upon after international mediation led by Gulf countries. Reconstruction gets underway. Nonetheless, the situation remains fragile, and tensions persist in the West Bank between settlers and Palestinians. Threats from Iran-backed terrorist groups in Lebanon and Yemen continue. The EU seeks ways to revive talks on Iran’s potential nuclear capability.

Mainstream parties are weakened but remain predominant after European elections, making limited concessions to populist demands. Single market reforms are implemented to bolster the EU’s competitiveness and geopolitical clout, though extensive national subsidies remain. The EU reaffirms its green and digital goals, albeit tempered by concerns about growth and jobs. The EU’s migration and asylum pact fails to stem migration significantly, leading to fresh calls for more restrictive national policies and robust external border controls.

The U.S. presidential election provides a profound shock, casting doubt on the future of NATO and other international organizations. This prompts the EU to commit to building its own security and defense structures.

Perspectives for 2024

These scenarios encapsulate different pathways forward in 2024, a pivotal year for the EU. The reinvigoration of European solidarity across the board and the stabilization of the EU’s international environment, as foreseen by the Path 1 scenario, seems unlikely. Nonetheless, the prospect of Donald Trump winning the November election and cutting the U.S. loose from Europe will concentrate minds on reinforcing the EU’s fundamentals.

The Path 2 scenario is more probable as its projections of current trends are realistic rather than hopeful. But it underestimates European resilience and resourcefulness in adapting to new challenges. This scenario will ring alarm bells across the EU and might lead to joint efforts to mitigate risks.

Such efforts are likely to take the form of the Path 3 scenario, which foresees piecemeal progress to achieving EU policy goals. This eschews alarmism but draws attention to perils and to plausible efforts to tackle them. The EU recognizes that enlargement to 30-35 members is highly uncertain and that a staged approach is most likely to bring progress while leaving the door open for the future.

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