The coming year will be ridden with challenges for the European Union. Russian president Vladimir Putin will continue the war on Ukraine for as long as he can. And beyond this war, much is set to change. Globally, this will be a super election year of a sort we have rarely seen. Around 50 nations with more than half of the world’s population will go to the polls – from Taiwan in January to the United States in November. These elections will drive much of the year’s agenda. And while Europeans can continue to hope for the best, they need to prepare now in case of the worst.
Putting an end to Russia’s war on Ukraine is Europe’s primary security imperative in 2024. If the EU cannot provide peace and stability to its east, it can expect the conflicts and instabilities there to gradually spread westwards. Putin is hoping that this super election year will result in weakened support for Ukraine, particularly if Donald Trump wins the US election this autumn. To bring the war to an end, Europeans need to show Putin that their resolve is firm and take clear steps to prepare Ukraine for a peaceful future, regardless of what happens in Washington.
We have a profound interest in stability in east Asia too. On the question of Taiwan’s future, every word counts and caution remains the wisest policy. Taipei and Beijing must shape their future relationship over time in peace and without any sort of coercion. A conflict over the future of Taiwan would quickly become a conflict between the US and China with profound global consequences.
The great Asian democracies, Indonesia and India, will choose their leaders for the coming years in the spring. Their rapidly growing economies will gain increasing global weight over the next decades. The world’s largest election in India will stretch out for several weeks. Its conduct and result will affect us as well.
In the EU itself, ten countries have important elections, and much of course will revolve around the European Parliament elections in June and what comes next. The United Kingdom also goes to the polls, with a high probability of a new government taking over. After changing prime ministers like most people change shirts, the prospect for the Conservatives is less than stellar. A change could speed up the melting of the ice between London and Brussels that has already made a discreet start. We all have an interest in that.
But the game after the European Parliament elections is the important one. It will set the EU’s new strategic course for the next five years and select the people that will carry this course forward. These years have all the conditions to be even stormier than the last ones. We need the best crew available for the voyage ahead.
The EU has undoubtedly established itself as an effective crisis manager in these times of black swans. It manoeuvred through the pandemic better than many expected, it has set climate policy in credible matters, and is even handling the growing migration challenge reasonably step by step, albeit with a little less shine.
Looking ahead, the green and digital transformations must continue. In the former it is about living up to what is promised by 2030, and in the latter it is about really getting up to speed. You can never regulate yourself to the top – you can only reach the top by innovating. The US invested about $27 billion in various AI efforts in 2023 – we are only at the cautious beginning of this development.
An increasingly fragmented world economy is another serious challenge for Europe, which for centuries has built its prosperity on its openness to the global markets. Now fewer steps are taken to liberalise global trade, and more are taken to limit or regulate it. Last year, 750 liberalising measures were announced compared to almost 2,900 harmful measures – including subsidies to production and exports, as well as tariffs. China is building its own world, the US has hardly any trade policy, and many also in Europe speak in convoluted terms about economic security – but Europe’s DNA must remain its openness in an open global economy.
But enlargement with Ukraine, Moldova, and possibly the Western Balkans will be the decisive task – the EU’s strategic imperative over the next five years. It is difficult and challenging in itself, but will also require reforms within the EU that may be even more difficult. We must prepare better for that discussion. Philosophic excursions on wide-ranging treaty changes can have an entertainment value but little relation to the political realities. Within existing frameworks and treaties, however, much can be done to streamline work and improve decision-making.
As times become increasingly stormy, it should be obvious that our small countries – Europe is composed of countries that are small and countries that have not yet recognised that they are small – have an interest in the better protection that a wider and better EU can bring. We have NATO as a military shield and alliance, but the challenges and dangers in the future are far wider than that, and for them a stronger EU will be an important shield as our security alliance.
Beyond all these events looms the US election in early November. The fear for what it might bring is already beginning to dominate in government offices worldwide. If the election was today, Trump would probably win. But thankfully, it is not today. A year is a very long time in politics. The image of the US economy should have improved by then – although the image of Joe Biden’s age less so. And world events will have their impact. The war in Gaza is an issue that divides generations – and we have certainly not seen the end of that disaster.
There is much to be said about the possible consequences of a return of Trump and ECFR will certainly not neglect the issue. In the American debate, increasingly dark perspectives on what might happen domestically are gaining ground. It risks becoming a presidency ruled by revenge.
Another Trump presidency would have global consequences too. The US would abandon climate policy and expand investments in fossil fuels. NATO would be – at best – dormant. There would be cosy get-togethers with buddies Putin and Orbán. Trade wars would harden – Trump is talking about a new 10 per cent tariff on all goods imported into the US. The list goes on. We shall certainly not give up hope that reason wins – but we must be prepared if it does not. In Europe, we must “Trump-proof” as much as we can by developing strong policies that can stand on their own. It will be demanding, in some areas extremely demanding, but in many others it is perfectly possible.
We can hope that Putin’s policy will collapse and the Trump offensive will fail – but we must realistically also prepare for years when we Europeans are squeezed between a revenge-lit Putin and a vengeful Trump. It is a brutal world, where questions about peace and war have returned. We cannot avoid them.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.