March 19, 2024

From Climate to Defence. The EU’s Shifting Priorities

On 18 March, the International Centre for Defence and Security (ICDS) organised a seminar on What is at stake in the European Parliament elections? that saw a panel discussion between Dr Ilke Toygür, the Director of the IE Center for Innovation in Global Politics and Economics, Dr Steven Blockmans, a Senior Fellow at CEPS and ICDS, and Merili Arjakas, a Junior Research Fellow at ICDS, moderated by Dr Kristi Raik, Deputy Director of ICDS.

The next European Parliament (EP) elections will be held in June 2024 in a challenging regional and global context. Russia’s war against Ukraine is ongoing; the US commitment to European security is in doubt; and global geopolitical competition remains tense. The rise of radical populist parties questions Europe’s ability to cope with these challenges and to continue on the path to becoming a strong geopolitical actor.

Since the last time the EU citizens went to polls, Europe has been hit with several crises, dealing with climate, COVID, housing and cost of living, immigration, and of course, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, all of which had enormous implications, in particular, on the budgetary priorities.

Although the EU does not have a direct defence and security power — or a Defence Commissioner— it still has significant adjacent powers to influence the budget, economic security, defence industry, and tech policy.

Whereas the political centre is expected to hold again, the shift to the right across the EU is now a reality and a snapshot of domestic politics in member states. The groups that the newly elected national representatives might join will also reflect the changing political landscapes in their home countries.

It is no longer “The economy, stupid” — this time, the vote is security- and fear-driven. With foreign and defence policies now both on the top of the political agenda and voters’ minds, the climate policy — as well as the Greens/EFA Group in the EP— will be hit the hardest. Peace and security on the European continent, migration, citizens’ rights, and the fight against terrorism are what energises and mobilises voters.

In Estonia, there is a security-based consensus between the government and the opposition to support EU enlargement. But despite such broad support, there is little willingness to conduct internal reforms in the EU, an analysis recently published by the ICDS finds. Enlargement and its economic implications are not seen as a politically sensitive subject: being a small country, Estonia does not see Ukraine as an economic competition in the way Poland does.

Extending qualified majority voting (QMV) vs keeping veto rights in security and human rights matters, however, are of greater concern to Estonia, which does not want to see bigger EU powers push for a return to ‘business as usual’ with Russia.

Regardless of the outcomes of American elections, Europe can no longer count on the US security umbrella because of the profound changes that have been taking place around the world. This global context, as well as the policy and (expensive) spending priorities it entails, should be better explained to the EU citizens, especially in anticipation of the next Multiannual Financial Framework and the opposition to tax increases from the right-wing parties that will only grow with their electoral gains. Rather controversially, however, the shift to the right in Europe during a Republican presidency in the US might have a stabilising effect on Transatlantic relations.

Disinformation and other means to influence the voters on the psychological level — such as abusing the concept of ‘peace’ by the pro/Russian political actors to portray their opponents as the ‘party of war’ —are to become more active. Meanwhile, their ability to sway voters — as already evidenced by the successful deployment of deep fakes during the Slovak elections in 2023 —  is to become an aggravating factor for the democracies and democratic processes throughout Europe.

There are many unknowns when it comes to elections. Yet, one thing is to remain certain: after the elections have been held, and the votes have been counted, we are bound to discover that we ought to have done more.

Filed under: Events