What’s next for EU policy after the elections?

Following this month's vote for the European Parliament, debates around defence, migration and climate are set to dominate the upcoming mandate. Here’s a closer look at six crucial policy areas.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy greets German and Ukrainian soldiers training to use a Patriot air defence missile system, June 2024.

By Gabriela Galindo

Gabriela is an agriculture and EU affairs reporter currently based in Brussels.

18 Jun 2024

The European elections shifted the power balance in the European Parliament, bolstering right-wing groups to the detriment of the Greens and the Left. 

A more dramatic shift to the right, predicted in some polls, did not materialise: the traditional coalition of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D), and liberal Renew Europe groups still commands a majority. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, from the EPP, is widely predicted – though not guaranteed – to remain in power for a second mandate. 

Nevertheless, the greater presence of the right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and far-right Identity and Democracy (ID) groups will give them more clout in the legislative process. 

They have also pulled other groups rightwards: national parties across the European Union have adopted tougher stances on undocumented immigration, while von der Leyen has been making overtures to Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, the dominant figure in ECR, and other leading figures on the right. 

Once the Commission president and other top figures are appointed, the EP will begin its normal work of amending the Commission’s draft legislation and negotiating the final shape of EU laws with national governments in the Council. 

The Parliament takes a look at what the new legislature could mean for some key policy areas including defence, migration and climate. 

Bolstering EU defence 

Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, which borders several EU countries and is a candidate for membership, has pushed EU leaders towards greater defence spending and integration, a dynamic which is likely to continue in the coming mandate. 

While some far-right parties in ID advocate a soft approach to Russia, those in ECR are mostly staunch supporters of Ukraine’s war effort. Meloni’s support for Ukraine has hardened since she became Italy’s prime minister in October 2022, nine months after Russia’s full-scale invasion. 

Von der Leyen has pitched for a defence commissioner and said that if she remains Commission president, she will only work with groups that are pro-Ukraine – as well as supporting the EU project and the rule of law. 

In terms of legislation, the “main big focus” of incoming EU leaders will be the European Defence Industrial Strategy (EDIS), which aims to ensure the EU’s €70bn military industry can produce “more and faster,” says Guntram Wolff, a senior fellow at the Bruegel think tank. 

Wolff says the EU should focus on “highly sophisticated new weapons systems and cyber capabilities” rather than on conventional weaponry. Artificial intelligence (AI) is an important new frontier, he says, and without homegrown systems “everybody will use systems from California and from China, and whether they will fulfil our ethical requirements is highly doubtful.” 

There are currently no unified EU ethics standards covering AI for military use. Defence was explicitly excluded from the EU’s AI Act, which entered into force last month. 

Laëtitia Sédou of the European Network Against Arms Trade says there are “serious ethical concerns” about the push for AI in warfare, since the existing ethical checks required to receive EU R&D defence funding fall short of international standards and “largely rely on companies’ self-assessments.” 

The EDIS “diverts political attention and resources from peace-building policies towards the construction of a European military-industrial complex,” she says. 

Managing migration 

The EU’s new Migration and Asylum Pact was agreed just in time for the elections, ending a nearly decade-long impasse, meaning the new batch of lawmakers will be able to focus on implementation rather than legislation. 

The reform aims to beef up border controls, restrict immigration from outside the EU, and make it easier for governments to relocate refugees to other countries and deport rejected asylum applicants. 

The pact demonstrated a newfound unity between EU countries but was criticised by human rights groups, many of which hope to have some of its provisions struck down in the courts. 

“NGOs like us will be following closely to see where there is room to strategise about legal action,” Gianluca Cesaro, a communications officer for migrant advocacy group PICUM, tells The Parliament. 

To meet the 2026 implementation deadline, the EU’s next big challenge will be to sort out the thorny question of who will finance the pact.  

Negotiations on the next Multiannual Financial Framework, which sets out EU spending per policy area, will be crucial, both for the pact to work as planned and to maintain governments’ newly found spirit of solidarity, says Alberto-Horst Neidhardt, a migration and diversity analyst at the European Policy Centre. 

“There is a lot of uncertainty about whether countries have the capacity to implement the pact and whether they will get sufficient support financially from the EU,” he says. Given the different population sizes of each EU country, and differences in how many migrants arrive at their borders, “the support will have to be tailor-made for the different countries.” 

The unified stance may not last forever, he says: “The current honeymoon period may come to an abrupt end when financial considerations come in.” 

Digital building blocks 

From telecoms infrastructure and roaming to digital privacy and e-commerce, few corners of the EU’s digital landscape were left untouched during the previous EU cycle. This slew of regulations is now awaiting roll-out, meaning incoming EU officials will have plenty to sink their teeth into throughout this new legislative cycle.  

The AI Act will be one key file to watch, says Camille Ford, digital economy researcher at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS). “There's a lot at stake for the EU in getting the AI Act right,” she says. Businesses will want to have clarity on how the different planks of cross-cutting legislation will interact, while leading international players will likely raise concerns that the EU’s approach stifles innovation. 

Elsewhere, several dozen news laws aim to whisk the EU single market into the digital era (the Digital Markets Act and Digital Services Act), improve data use and accessibility (the Data Act) and beef up the bloc’s cutting-edge industries (the Chips Act) and its digital spaces (the Cybersecurity Act). 

Getting all those pieces of legislation to work well together, especially when applied at the country level, will be one of the next Commission’s toughest challenges, says Ford, adding that it will also require making the digital single market a reality by working on telecoms integration.  

Recent reports by Enrico Letta and Mario Draghi, both former Italian prime ministers and economics heavy-hitters, make the case for more robust digital infrastructure to boost the EU’s competitiveness. 

“One of the big efforts to come out quickly from the new Commission [will focus on] Europe's digital infrastructure and how to make it more integrated, more secure, and to make it contribute to European competitiveness on all layers of the technology stack,” says Ford, something which “very clearly” connects with the EU’s security and sovereignty objectives. 

Trade tug-of-wars 

Shifting geopolitics, climate change and socioeconomic disarray will continue to make trade policy a complex and important priority for the EU’s new batch of lawmakers. 

Pascal Lamy, vice-president of the Europe Jacques Delors think tank and a former EU trade commissioner, says there is a difficult balance to strike. “We need open markets more than others, [but] on the other hand, the EU has to take measures that some countries, in different proportions, might see as protectionist.” 

Recent laws such as the anti-deforestation and corporate sustainability directives, or the CBAM tax on carbon-intensive imports, will be a test of whether the EU can bring sustainability requirements into its trade policy and still remain competitive. 

Lamy, who also led the World Trade Organisation (WTO) for two mandates, says whoever takes over trade policy will have to keep momentum going on convincing global partners that “there are ways to keep trade open while decarbonising the economy.”  

“The EU needs to up its game in order to spread as nicely and as quickly as possible this notion that we have to take climate-based measures that impact trade, and we should all do it in a harmonised, if not totally convergent way,” he says. 

Human rights and environmental abuses associated with the rush for new raw materials needed for the green transition — such as Chilean lithium or Congolese cobalt — will present a challenge, he says. “This is a big issue which necessitates new approaches and much more co-ordination between the Commission’s trade, climate and the external action [departments].” 

Another big headache for the incoming commissioner will be getting the Mercosur trade deal with Latin American countries ratified in the face of opposition from European farmers — an influential lobby for many of the newly strengthened right-wing parties. 

“This can be done on two conditions,” Lamy says. “That the Mercosur [countries] accept a bit more green in the agreement… and that, on the EU’s side, the Commission works up the guts to call for a vote [in Council],” where he says reluctant countries like France or Ireland would be in the minority. 

Growing pains 

The Russian invasion resuscitated the EU’s dormant enlargement agenda, with nine countries including Ukraine now in line to join the bloc. But that’s not to say it will be straightforward. 

“You always have this push-pull between the domestic interests against enlargement and the external geopolitical reasons to go forward with it,” Heather Grabbe, a senior fellow at Bruegel, tells The Parliament.  

The EU will have to convince existing members of the benefits of enlargement, she says, which are “not just geopolitical issues – it’s also about internal security and better ability to work with neighbouring countries on issues of common concern, be that pollution, migration, organised crime and so on.” 

EU institutions must also learn from the mistakes of the 2004 ‘Big Bang’ enlargement, which saw the accession of 10 mostly Central and Eastern European members including Poland and Hungary – both of which subsequently caused rule-of-law headaches in Brussels – and during which Grabbe served as top advisor for then-enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn. 

Creating a more detailed and substantive set of rules to avoid corruption or democratic backsliding, for all members alike, will likely be top of the agenda for the new commissioner, she says. “It’s going to be a huge challenge for the next commissioner, because it's not just a technical issue, it's a highly political issue.” 

For those reasons, Grabbe says it is unlikely that any country will complete its accession process in this new cycle. “But it could happen very shortly thereafter,” she adds. 

Green Deal redux 

The Greens’ poor showing in the elections reflects a popular turn away from the Green Deal, arguably the signature achievement of von der Leyen’s first mandate, meaning that further progress on climate action — or even implementing existing agreements — will be difficult. 

Even within the EPP, many lawmakers have made no secret of their distaste for the Green Deal, says Grabbe. To navigate this, it is “likely that the next Commission would talk about the Green Deal less, but continue working on it,” she says. 

A big challenge set to crop up early in the next EU mandate will be the defining of 2030 climate targets, a stepping stone towards the larger goal of reaching EU-wide climate neutrality by 2050.  

Cutting back on the agricultural sector’s massive climate footprint will be a crucial challenge, and many policy experts say the EU can no longer afford to dance around the crucial question of how to pay for this shift. 

“We call on policymakers to be ambitious and instead of questioning the need for a Green Deal altogether, to rather think about how to finance it — and quickly,” says Pauline Constant of EU consumer lobby BEUC. 

Harriet Bradley, of the IEEP sustainability think tank, points to the seemingly obvious solution of linking the EU’s massive farm subsidies to the goals of the Green Deal. But the outgoing and much greener Parliament already failed to win this battle, meaning there is little chance that the new cohort will agree to it. 

The push for greener energy, meanwhile, has become more complicated since the Russian invasion made sovereignty the most important plank of energy policy. Irina Kustova, a research fellow at CEPS, says this will make the role of the incoming energy commissioner similar to that of the EU Green Deal chief in the previous mandate. 

“It’s a more strategic, more political portfolio now,” she says. 

Read the most recent articles written by Gabriela Galindo - Why the EU's gender justice bill leaves the most vulnerable behind