A geopolitical European Commission is a must for 2025 and beyond

From the eurozone crisis in 2011 to Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, Europe has faced existential tests more or less continuously for over a decade. This year is no exception, especially as citizens on both sides of the Atlantic head to the polls to decide the future of their political leadership and, as a result, the direction of transatlantic relations.

Europe votes first in June, when elections for the European Parliament will usher in a tenth parliamentary session and, circuitously, a new European Commission for the next five years. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has announced that she is running for a second term, driven, among other priorities, to deliver a geopolitically relevant European Union (EU). Whoever ends up at the helm in the Berlaymont, a critical task will be to prioritize this ambition—especially in the bloc’s defense transformation and economic security—all while carefully navigating the EU’s relationship with the United States.

Europe’s elections and the geopolitical Commission

The first test of the bloc’s geopolitical ambitions will be the indirect election of the European Commission president. With the much-anticipated announcement of von der Leyen’s candidacy to lead the European People’s Party (EPP) on February 19, and with the official nod from the EPP Congress on March 7, her hat is officially in the ring.

As a committed Atlanticist and proponent of a “geopolitical Commission,” a term she has popularized, von der Leyen is the face of a more muscular and active EU in world affairs, with the Commission at the steering wheel. Hers is a world in which the Commission president answers Henry Kissinger’s famous question of who the United States should call to speak with Europe. She looks to continue that vision. “Prosperity. Security. Democracy,” will be her priorities for the next Commission, von der Leyen stressed at the EPP Congress.

Von der Leyen’s return is likely, but it is not guaranteed. The EPP is on course to collect the most seats in the parliamentary elections, which would put von der Leyen, as the EPP’s Spitzenkandidat (or “lead candidate”), in pole position for another term as Commission president. However, the EU’s twenty-seven member state leaders at the European Council will be the ones to officially nominate the president, and EU treaties only require them to take “into account” June’s election results when making this decision. One recalls how in 2019, von der Leyen was controversially not her party’s lead candidate—or even officially in the running—but was still nominated by the Council to become Commission president.

Von der Leyen has already collected the endorsement of European leaders from her EPP family as well as those from the rival Party of European Socialists, including Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez. She has also garnered positive murmurs from Berlin—even though von der Leyen is part of Germany’s opposition Christian Democrats, Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s main rivals. However, her style and ambition have not been without controversy. She has earned the ire of national capitals for not consulting with them on major decisions, overstepping her role, and centralizing powers inside her office.

With a projected rightward shift in the Parliament, von der Leyen will have to win over European leaders and a constellation of parliamentary parties outside the EPP to secure a new mandate. The European elections are mostly national affairs and voters are mobilized by national priorities, such as the rising cost of living or farmers’ protests. But the elections and subsequent horse trading at the Council can still be seen, in part at least, as a vote of confidence—or not—on von der Leyen and her leadership of the Commission. Regardless of von der Leyen’s future, the next Commission president will have to contend with crises and challenges at their doorstep.

Adapting Europe for the realities of war

Once the dust settles after the election, Europe will face a litany of priorities commanding the attention of the Commission. While environmental and agricultural regulations, reforms to immigration policy, and concerns over the common market’s sluggish competitiveness are all important considerations, the first order priorities must be bolstering European security and supporting Ukraine. This means recognizing the need to reshape Europe’s defense footing for the near and long term.

Europe has come a long way since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago. Member states have emptied their stockpiles of arms and munitions. The bloc has activated nearly one hundred billion euros in support for Ukraine, accented by a fifty-billion-euro financial aid package to Kyiv earlier this year. The EU additionally blocked Russian state assets, enacted thirteen packages of sanctions against Russia, weathered a difficult and costly ongoing energy decoupling from Moscow, and pioneered new mechanisms to fund, arm, and train Ukrainians.

Much more is needed. Europe continues to struggle to arm Ukraine with the kit it needs. National differences inside the bloc have hampered efforts to buy ammunition for Ukraine or agree on top-ups to the European Peace Facility. Joint defense procurement, a perennial goal, remains underdeveloped.

On these fronts, the EU institutions can play an important role and have already made promising signals. Von der Leyen and others have already endorsed establishing the post of commissioner for defense, and the EPP’s electoral manifesto calls for the creation of a “Single Market for Defence.” On March 5, the Commission unveiled its European Defence Industrial Strategy (EDIS) which outlines a path to revitalize Europe’s defense industrial complex, meet ambitious targets for homegrown defense capabilities, and continue to arm Ukraine. The Commission complemented EDIS with its proposal for the European Defence Industry Programme (EDIP), which includes an investment plan worth €1.5 billion to boost domestic production and common procurement of military equipment in Europe.

Individually, however, a new initiative or a European defense commissioner will not solve Europe’s woes. As proposed, EDIP only spans until 2027 and offers a paltry sum—just 1.5 percent of the one hundred billion euros needed in the long term, as European Commissioner for the Single Market Thierry Breton has argued. As EDIP itself states, it is only a bridge to longer-term changes. EDIS sets laudable targets, but defense competencies remain in national capitals, and there are still wide divergences on how to take EU defense efforts forward, never mind how to finance them. All the while, Ukraine desperately needs European military aid now.

Time is also running short to enact EDIP this legislative term. The Parliament will need to debate and adopt the proposal and square any differences with member states in the Council of the European Union before electoral campaigning begins in May.

As a result, Brussels will need to hit the ground running on defense. After the election, EU policymakers must implement EDIP and subsequently look ahead to the long-term plan. The next Commission cannot afford to be absent in this debate and must spearhead the effort to design a more unified and concerted approach to European defense.

Preparing for economic security in action

Alongside defense, the next Commission’s agenda must deal with security concerns in international trade and industrial policy. Following the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion, Europe has reassessed how to conduct trade with unreliable actors, including China, on which the EU market is vulnerably dependent. Subsequently, the EU is debating how to shore up supply chains and “de-risk” its critical dependences from one of the bloc’s biggest trade partners.

Fears of overexposure to Chinese exports, dependence on unreliable states for critical materials needed for the green transition, unfair market practices skewing trade relations, and strategic investments of critical infrastructure have already pushed the European Commission to release a comprehensive economic security package. The policy proposes bloc action to confront nonmarket actors and would-be antagonists. Although it does not mention China by name, the EU has already begun to screen Chinese investment and state subsidies into electric vehicles and solar panel imports. The next Commission will likely continue its current posture and maintain a delicate balance of trade and security vis-à-vis China, despite the caution expressed by some member states (especially Germany) over von der Leyen’s hawkish tone.

In doing this, however, the EU must also ensure its commitment to the values of free trade and open markets on which the bloc was founded. Europe cannot compete dollar for dollar as the United States can on issues of economic security. Nor can it fully engage in industrial policy, as Mario Draghi’s forthcoming report on the single market likely suggests. These deficiencies need not be crippling, though, as the European Commission can still work to complete new free trade agreements with strategic partners such as Canada and Mercosur.

Transatlantic relations on and off the ballot

While Europe’s strategic attention is focused on Ukraine and China, the EU will still need to look to the United States for partnership. Whether the transatlantic relationship persists in its current form or gets upended will depend in part on the outcome of the US presidential election in November. In any case, the next Commission must aim to maintain at least stable relations with Washington.

It is fundamentally in the United States’ interest to have a strong and cooperative partner across the pond—a proactive Europe on the world stage, capable of securing its own defense and taking the lead on supporting Ukraine. It has already made great strides on the latter but will need to address the former from day one after June’s elections. Meanwhile, the US-EU Trade and Technology Council remains a central vessel for harmonizing digital policy and mediating trade disputes, which will only grow in prominence amid transatlantic de-risking from China.

Given how often Europe has overcome serious institutional headwinds and geopolitical crises before, observers may dismiss the EU’s current wave of structural challenges as merely one more in a long series. But it would be mistaken to downplay Europe’s coming troubles or the scale of the institutional reforms that will be necessary to surmount them. While Europe has so far managed to avoid sending its own forces into direct combat with Russia or facing heavy Chinese economic pressure, it is increasingly clear that the EU must develop its defense and economic statecraft capabilities to guarantee its security and geopolitical weight in the long term. The legacy of the next European Parliament and Commission president will be defined by how they rise to these challenges.

James Batchik is an associate director of the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center.

Stuart Jones is a young global professional with the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center.

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Image: Ursula von der Leyen (CDU), President of the European Commission, stands in the plenary chamber of the European Parliament and speaks. A central point of the debate was the EU's defense policy.