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EU politics 2023 lookahead: A relative calm before the election storm

EU politics 2023 lookahead: A relative calm before the election storm

As policymakers and governments gear up for the new year, EURACTIV summarises the key political developments to keep an eye on in 2023 – from two EU Council presidencies and major files on migration to national and European elections.

The first days of January saw an assault on Brazil’s presidential palace and Supreme Court by supporters of the defeated Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing populist, conjuring echoes of the Capitol Hill revolt by Donald Trump’s supporters two years ago. These rebellions point to the fragility of democracy across the world.

Though Europe is yet to see similar cases, in which the defeated refuse to accept the results of democratic elections, the bloc is not immune to the political forces that drove the upheavals in Brasilia and Washington DC. 

With key national elections in Europe this year, and European Parliament elections next May, there is every reason to be vigilant. Indeed, EU lawmakers are set to push through new legislation aimed at tightening rules on foreign interference in campaigns. 

With that in mind, let’s look at what shifts in Europe’s political landscape we are likely to see in 2023.

Presidencies offer little ambition

January saw Stockholm take over at the helm of the Council of the EU from Prague. As EURACTIV reported in a previous newsletter, their programme is dominated – unsurprisingly – by the war in Ukraine.

Treaty reform will likely remain on the back burner, though the Swedish presidency’s programme does include a shy reference to the possibility of moving towards “qualified majority voting in certain areas of the Common Foreign and Security Policy”, pointing towards present difficulties of EU unity on sanctions.

The Spanish presidency in the second half of 2023 will be dominated by electioneering in the country.

The presidency will begin off the back of regional elections in May and culminate in general elections in December – and the former may well influence the latter. Currently, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s left-wing coalition is behind in the polls, though not by an insurmountable margin.

Moves on migration

The Swedish presidency expects to move forward on the Pact on Migration and Asylum, respecting the so-called roadmap on migration that EU institutions and diplomats informally agreed upon last September, a group of legislative files on migration that EU institutions committed to concluding before the end of this mandate.

However, it is unlikely that significant progress on the files will be seen until the second half of the year. Currently, the central migration debate in the EU is about primary movements from third countries from the Mediterranean Sea and the Balkan route.

While this issue will not take centre stage for Stockholm, it will be another story for the Spanish presidency, as a frontline country. One EU diplomatic source told EURACTIV that migration will be Spain’s main priority.

In the meantime, we are likely to see a continued focus on securing EU borders, regardless of whether Sánchez or the conservative Partido Popular (PP) win Spain’s December elections.

There is clear political will by the Spanish government to reduce the flux of immigrants coming through the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, which sit next to the border with Morocco.

Last year, we reported on the normalisation of relations between Morocco and Spain, explaining why Morocco is successfully achieving its goal, such as the international legitimation of its position on Western Sahara (considered serious, credible, and realistic by many, such as the US) in exchange of management of migration.

A case of protocol?

Following EU-UK relations, particularly the Northern Ireland protocol, has become like waiting for Godot. Zero progress was made in 2022, in large part because of the political crisis engulfing the UK’s governing Conservative party, which ousted both Boris Johnson and his successor Liz Truss. 

However, the mood music is now more positive. 

Ireland’s new Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has already said publicly that the terms of the protocol are too strict, which could nudge the European Commission to slightly soften its negotiating stance.

Moreover, US President Joe Biden is likely to make a state visit to the UK in April to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday peace agreement if a breakthrough has been made on the protocol, creating grounds for optimism.

Brussels’ Mexican standoff

December’s Mexican stand-off between the European Commission and Hungary is likely to continue into 2023.

Budapest backed down on its block of €18 billion of EU aid to Ukraine in return for the EU executive agreeing to release around €6 billion in coronavirus recovery funds.

However, Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz government is desperate for an additional €16 billion in EU funds, which the Commission says it will withhold because of concerns about corruption and the rule of law – watch this space.

Qatargate: Real reforms? 

The fallout from the Qatargate scandal will also dominate the early months of 2023, particularly in the European Parliament.

The legal cases against a handful of past and present MEPs and officials are set to start in earnest from February when the European Parliament is likely to complete the process of lifting legal immunity for those facing accusations.

More significant than the fate of individuals is what the Parliament and the other EU institutions do to tighten rules on lobbying and transparency that made Qatargate a scandal waiting to happen.

With the EU elections less than 18 months away, it is hard to imagine that Parliament’s leadership, particularly President Roberta Metsola, will countenance a ‘do nothing’ approach.

However, MEPs have previously tended to shy away from ambitious internal reforms and the early signs are that they will not back tough US-style rules on mandatory disclosure.

Three key national polls

In Spain, opinion polls give the conservative PP a six-point lead over Sánchez’s Socialist party and currently point towards a right-wing coalition of the PP and the nationalist Vox party, which is currently polling strongly at around 15%, ahead of the leftist Podemos.

Elsewhere, Polish politics might finally get competitive again this year, with the centre-right Civic Platform of former European Council president Donald Tusk closing in on the United Right, in which the long-governing Law and Justice party is the key player.

Should these trends continue and a more centrist liberal government take office in Warsaw, that would have major implications for the direction of EU politics, particularly on the rule of law. 

In Greece, meanwhile, a close battle is shaping between the ruling conservative New Democracy and leftist Syriza, though Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ party holds an eight-point lead over Syriza’s Alexis Tsipras.

It will be worth watching whether the revelations about the Greek state’s surveillance operation against opposition lawmakers and journalists will damage Mitsotakis.

[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]

Written by Kristel Haire