The European Union's New Leadership: Policy Changes Cannot be Left in Place

A renewal of leadership is often associated with an expectation of changes, especially when it comes to the heads of the main supranational institutions of the European Union. In 2019, elections to the European Parliament were held, and at first its chairman was replaced (the new one is Italian democrat David Maria Sassoli), and later the head of the European Council was appointed (Belgian liberal Charles Michel), as well as the European Central Bank head (French Gaullist Christine Lagarde), the  European Union foreign policy chief (Spanish socialist Josep Borrell), and the European Commission head (German Christian Democrat Ursula von der Leyen). Thus, the EU is now governed by representatives of the old EU member states, the older generation (except Charles Michel) and mostly centre-right.

The appointments did not go very smoothly and the new leaders were late in receiving the keys to their new offices. However, decisions of the heads of state and government of the member countries on the personalities of EU leaders are never easy: there is the desire to limit the weight of the new leadership, recall old grievances and gain more influence for representatives of their country. Similarly, the European Parliament traditionally tries to show its influence and always rejects several High Commissioners. Therefore, in general, the process was in line with prevailing norms. The new EU leadership is not balanced in terms of how it represents member countries and political parties, but for the first time it reached an almost perfect gender balance (2 women and 3 men), in a nod to the theme of gender equality.

However, the importance of the EU leadership should not be exaggerated. The EU is a highly institutionalised and bureaucratic actor. Its apparatus has grinded and minimised many innovations in various areas of cooperation. Properly high institutionalisation is what makes the existence of the EU possible, it guarantees predictability and adherence to the rules of the game, but it often turns any reform process into a Sisyphean endeavour. This may not apply to minor changes or legislative innovations, but it does apply to the radical transformation of the EU. Yes, there have been leaders in the history of European integration who have transformed the entire process of cooperation. For example, Jacques Delors. But he was chosen for this, while the current EU leadership was formed by national leaders based on its predictability and the current management of established processes. It is symptomatic, for example, that Spaniard Josep Borrell, an ardent fighter for the territorial integrity of states, is planning one of his first trips to Kosovo.

However, Russia should be worried about a change in EU leadership, for at least two reasons. The first reason is that in the Union there is no desire to radically change relations with present-day Russia, nor are there any creative ideas on this subject. Any discussion comes down to ritual dances regarding the five points of Federica Mogherini, which should rather be considered as a tactics. The European Union (like Russia) sincerely believes that time is on its side: you just have to wait and Russia will return to the format of cooperation that it had adopted  in the 1990s and at the beginning of the 2000s. The way the new leadership has formulated priorities in relation to Russia only confirms this prevailing pattern.

The second reason that Russia should pay attention to is the priorities of the internal policy of the European Union, formulated by the Commission on the basis of existing trends. They are increasingly at odds with Russian politics. This is primarily due to the so-called European Green Deal, which is concerned with improving the environmental friendliness of the economy, developing renewable energy sources and increasing energy efficiency. This course means a gradual narrowing of the field of cooperation between Russia and the EU (even the participation of Russian gas in energy transformation, although recognised in the medium term, remains debatable). The regulations of Russia and the EU will diverge in another pillar of the modern economy, the digital sphere. And this means that when relations improve, mutually beneficial economic cooperation will be seriously complicated. Moreover, such economic development will not force politicians to seek compromises. The discussion on these issues is long overdue; not only at the state level, but also among business representatives.

What else is worth paying attention to in the coming months? Let’s note three questions. The first is the redistribution of powers between Commissioners, but especially between the Commission, the head of the European Council and the office of High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. All three institutions have a real interest in external relations, and how they will interact remains unclear. The second issue is Brexit; the current Commission will either have to finalise and develop new terms of trade (London will have difficult negotiations with the Irish Commissioner for Trade), or return everything to normal, if the UK decides to stay (and this opportunity still remains). Well, the third question is the activity of national elites. France's initiatives so far cause more irritation than interest, but Paris’s mood for change is obvious, as well as the ambitions of president Macron. Much will depend on the change of leaders in Germany, and more precisely - what position the new leadership will take regarding Russia, consensus among member countries, and the further development of the EU.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.