Thursday, April 25, 2013

European austerity: Turn or TINA?

Will European governments reverse the austerity course that has done so much to damage their already enfeebled economies? With the revelation of mathematical errors in the work of two Harvard economists, Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff – who had claimed to show that economic growth falls off a cliff once a country’s ratio of debt to GDP reaches 90 per cent – another of the intellectual underpinnings for the current strategy has been swept away. As foreseen by the majority of mainstream economists, eurozone countries’ debt positions continue to worsen rapidly despite wrenching austerity and there is no sign of a rebound in consumer and business confidence. Mass unemployment and chronically weak business investment is waking people up to the folly of synchronised austerity in a depressed economy, hastening what President Barroso has termed (in an unguarded moment) the ‘political limits of austerity’. Everything argues for a change of course, but it could be slow in coming.

The assertion that fiscal austerity would actually boost economic growth – made by another pair of Harvard economists, Alberto Alesina and Silvia Ardagna – was always highly questionable, as was the Reinhart and Rogoff thesis. But the European Commission and European governments (including the British one) latched onto the work of Alesina and Reinhart and Rogoff to provide intellectual support for austerity. Even as the body of evidence against Alesina’s research accumulated, European policy-makers were slow to reject it. When they eventually did, they continued to argue that it was still necessary to pursue fiscal austerity so as to prevent ratios of debt to GDP exceeding the magical level of 90 per cent of GDP, despite the fact that austerity was depressing growth and increasing countries’ debt ratios. The question marks over the soundness of Reinhart’s and Rogoff’s work on debt levels and economic growth are certainly embarrassing for European governments and the Commission, but it is unlikely to dispel the myths around austerity. 

On the face of it, things do seem to be changing. The Commission has given eurozone countries a bit more time to meet their fiscal targets. In particular, it is dealing cautiously with France, which has resisted cutting its deficit as quickly as demanded. The Commission is being careful to place as much stress on the need for structural reforms as austerity. But all this amounts to less than it seems. The decision to give countries a bit more time is simply an acknowledgement that deficits are higher than they were supposed to be because economies are weaker than the Commission expected them to be. It does not represent a significant change of strategy. The fiscal position across the eurozone remains contractionary despite the region’s economy being stuck in a depression. For their part, the Germans are actually tightening policy despite the country’s budget being in surplus and the German economy having stalled. There is still no acceptance that running a budget deficit in a recession is a perfectly sensible economic strategy or that structural reforms will only pay off economically in the long-term, and only then if accompanied by a recovery of business investment.

Why is a policy U-turn unlikely, at least for the time-being? Many policy-makers probably did (and some probably still do) believe that the current austerity strategy is the correct one. Politicians in a number of core eurozone countries like to say, ‘We did our homework, it’s time for others to do theirs.’ Theirs was always a very partial reading of the causes of the crisis, but it has obvious appeal to national vanity and has become central to the narrative of the crisis in these member-states. Many policy-makers never believed in austerity as a solution to the crisis, but went along with it because it was the only politically possible course. They acknowledged that it made little sense to institutionalise pro-cyclical fiscal policy in the form of the fiscal compact, but understood that it was necessary in order to keep the Germans and other core members on board and ensure they acquiesced in a more activist approach by the ECB. This latter policy has ensured that French borrowing costs have come down steadily despite frustration at the slow pace of fiscal consolidation under Hollande’s government. 

However, the eurozone needs a big change of direction, not just a bit more time for countries to meet their fiscal targets. The possibility of this happening depends to a large extent on Germany. How could they be brought around? One way would be for the French, Italians and Spanish to unite in an attempt to face down the German government. It is quite possible that it will eventually to come to this, but it would be a risky strategy to play in the run-up to a German general election. Such a manoeuvre could easily backfire and would certainly be seen as an aggressive move by many Germans. Another way would be to redouble efforts to persuade Germany of the risks that austerity poses to itself. After all, the German economy is slowing quickly under the combined impact of falling exports to the eurozone and a slowdown in exports to China. This is exposing the underlying weakness of the country’s economy: stagnant domestic demand. But the politics are formidably difficult. The Germans might modify their narrative and agree to take some steps to strengthen domestic demand in Germany. But they are unlikely to accept that austerity is self-defeating, not least because this would leave them having to acknowledge the need for far-reaching institutional reforms of the eurozone.

For example, if struggling member-states face high borrowing costs because investors treat them as if they are borrowing in a foreign currency (rather than because their economic policies lack credibility), this strengthens the arguments in favour of allowing the ECB to act as a fully-fledged lender of last resort, or in favour of a degree of risk mutualisation. The ECB’s promise to stand behind the debts of eurozone countries (its so-called Outright Monetary Transactions) has proved remarkably effective so far. But ultimately the central bank will have to put money on the line, which it cannot do at present unless countries promise to abide by strict conditionality. The evidence of the last five years strongly suggests that attempting to meet these conditions would prove very damaging economically and politically. 

But the German and other core eurozone governments understandably want to avoid having to try to sell such reforms to their sceptical electorates, for fear of turning their voters against the single currency. This is why it will continue to suit many policy-makers to argue that the crisis is all down to rule-breaking, and the responsibility of individual member-states. Despite the overwhelming weight of evidence, both empirical and theoretical, many politicians will continue to trot out Margaret Thatcher’s favourite line: there is no alternative – TINA.

Simon Tilford is chief economist at the Centre for European Reform.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Is the euro crisis responsible for populism?

Populists and extremists are on the rise across Europe. Even Germany is now seeing the rise of a eurosceptic party. The euro crisis is the reason for growing political risk in the eurozone. Or is it? True, populist parties are more important in several euro countries. But the reasons for this are manifold and it is hard to detect a Europe-wide trend. An end to the euro crisis would not guarantee a return to predictable two-camp politics.

What is populism? At the most basic level, a populist is someone who advocates measures that you do not like. For the right-wing press, populists are the people who call for higher taxes, more welfare and the protection of industries. For the left-wing media, it is people who oppose immigration, diversity and the EU.

What populists tend to have in common is that they contrast themselves with the political elites. "Populism is as much about style as it is about substance", says Tim Bale, politics professor at Queen Mary University in London and an expert on the subject. Populists usually claim that they alone represent the people while established political parties are portrayed as self-serving, aloof and corrupt. Populists dislike representative democracy and love referendums.

Applying this definition, the rise in populism in Europe predates the euro crisis by quite a few years. Think of Jörg Haider in Austria, Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands, the Kaczynski brothers in Poland or Jean-Marie Le Pen in France.

Two trends have eroded people’s trust in public authority and thus helped the populists. First, globalisation, immigration and technological change are making life more complex. Centre-left parties can no longer credibly promise jobs and social security. The centre-right’s notions of stable families and individual responsibility sound barely credible. As old ideological divisions blur, mainstream parties on both sides promise to do 'whatever works'. Confused voters find the populists' clear, simplistic messages appealing.

Second, the spread of the internet and new media can help political upstarts to mobilise the masses. Many people nowadays trust the internet more than the mainstream media. And in their attempt to regain ratings, even serious broadcasters give colourful populists more air time than 'boring' centrists.

The euro crisis has not caused European populism but it is certainly fuelling it. In these vexing times, the simple solutions peddled by the populists are gaining traction in many eurozone countries. But each country has its idiosyncrasies.

Voters in some of the northern creditor countries got restive first. The eurosceptic and anti-immigration Freedom Party almost tripled its share in the Dutch election in 2010. One year later, the anti-bailout True Finns became the third largest party in the Finnish parliament. However, both parties seemed to have peaked already. In 2012, the Freedom Party's vote collapsed in the Dutch general elections, as did support for the True Finns in local elections.

Is it Germany's turn now? With the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), a eurosceptic party will for the first time contest a general election in Germany in September. The AfD's main objective is for Germany to leave the euro, although the party supports other aspects of European integration. One opinion poll showed that almost a quarter of Germans would "in principle" consider voting for a eurosceptic party; but in another poll, only 3 per cent said they would choose AfD if elections took place now. The AfD’s leader, Bernd Lucke, a soft-spoken boyish-looking academic, is an odd sort of populist, although, like most of his European peers, he promises more direct democracy and an end to the politics of yore. However, since most of the party’s upper echelon consists of bespectacled professors and well-to-do businessmen, it appeals to middle-class centrist voters – who are overwhelmingly still happy with Angela Merkel and her euro policies.

In Germany, as in other North European countries, the main impact of the populists is that they throw well-rehearsed coalition politics into disarray. The AfD might not get the 5 per cent needed for parliamentary seats. But it might steal just enough votes from the (already suffering) Liberals to deprive Merkel of her natural coalition partner after September. Populists also have impact because mainstream politicians often feel compelled to usurp their ideas. Such tactics hardly ever work, partly because the populists can easily move to further extremes and partly because moderate voters (still a majority in all North European countries) resent politicians chasing the populist vote.

If populism in Northern Europe is destabilising but not disastrous, what about the south? In Greece and Italy, the populists are no longer fringe figures. In the Greek elections of May 2012, the hard-left Syriza party came first after promising Greeks an end to EU-imposed austerity; the neo-fascist Golden Dawn got 7 per cent, with a similar share going to another right-wing nationalist party (a re-run of the vote a month later lifted the centre-right New Democracy just above Syriza but otherwise changed little). In Italy’s election in February 2013, the anti-EU Five Star Movement of Beppe Grillo gained 25 per cent, a bigger slice than any other single party.

With unemployment now standing at 27 per cent in Greece, and Italy suffering its longest recession in two decades, how could people not have voted for populists? They could have. Spain also has 27 per cent unemployment and not a populist in sight. The Irish and Portuguese people have suffered tremendously in the euro crisis but they have not deserted the established parties.

Greece and Italy stand out because their political systems had become dysfunctional long before the economic crisis. Corruption and nepotism exist in most European countries – but not to the extent that used to prevail in Rome and Athens. It is therefore understandable that Greeks and Italians now refuse to back established parties that have done little for their respective countries in decades.

The deepest rift in Greek politics runs not between supporters and opponents of austerity but between those who have long benefited from a bloated public sector (protected by, and closely intertwined with, New Democracy and the other mainstream party, Pasok) and those in the private sector who have borne the brunt of austerity.  To them Syriza’s promises of free health care and school meals, generous social welfare and higher minimum wages look appealing. But many of them simply cannot stomach supporting the two traditional parties of power anymore.

Greece is also one of the few places where the crisis has boosted the extreme right. One reason is growing resentment of the million-odd immigrants who arrived during the good years. Another is the breakdown of law and order that has accompanied the Greek economic collapse. The state is in such disarray that many Greeks now welcome Golden Dawn’s black-shirted hoodlums bringing some ‘order’ to their neighbourhoods – even if that entails hundreds of immigrants ending up in hospital after brutal beatings.

In Italy, the right-wing Lega Nord got a measly 4 per cent in the 2013 election. It had become tainted by too many years in government. Italians rejected all established political parties in the last vote, irrespective of whether they were pro or anti-austerity. They did not vote for their erstwhile technocratic prime minister, Mario Monti, either. Monti's tax hikes and budget cuts did not win him many friends. But his approval ratings (once at a stellar 70 per cent) only collapsed once he stopped being a technocrat and entered the political fray as an election candidate.

The tragedy in Greece and Italy is that this much-overdue re-ordering and renewal of the political system comes at a time when both countries desperately need strong and stable governments. It might be years before that is a realistic prospect. Populists do have a habit of running out of steam. The closer they get to power, the more they come under pressure to present credible solutions and make compromises. At this point, they either become mainstream or they deflate. Until this happens, populism and political uncertainty will continue to make the euro crisis more combustible.

However, it is not certain that an end to austerity would make Greek and Italian politics predictable, nor that without further bailouts there would be no populism in Northern Europe. In an age where voters are both confused and easily malleable via the internet and social media, politics will not return to the staid two or three party systems of the post-war years. 

Katinka Barysch is deputy director of the Centre for European Reform.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Out of range, out of mind: Is there a role for Europe in the Korean crisis?

From London or Brussels, the situation on the Korean Peninsula can appear – in the words of former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain – a "quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing". On one side, a mad dictator (you only have to look at his hairstyle) with nuclear weapons and long-range missiles of doubtful reliability; on the other side, the country of Gangnam Style and Samsung. The nuclear weapons cannot reach Europe. And the big global powers, the US and China, are already engaged. Europe could leave them to sort things out, at best playing the role of Greek chorus in support of US policy (as a Western ex-official described it recently).

But that would be a mistake. Seasoned Korea watchers say that the current crisis is as serious as they can recall. Against that background, as the US flies B2 bombers over South Korea and Japan deploys ships with anti-missile defences, one could ask, as Stalin did of the Pope, how many divisions the EU has. But while it may not have armies there, Europe has interests and assets in the region. It should think about how to protect the former and use the latter.

Any conflict would have a significant global economic impact. The Republic of Korea is the world's 15th largest economy and Europe's 9th largest trading partner. And if North Korea started lobbing missiles at Japan (the EU’s 7th largest trading partner), or if China, the EU's second largest trading partner, became directly involved in the fighting – admittedly, highly unlikely – that would multiply the effects on Europe’s own economic well-being.

Europeans also have an interest in the global order which the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) threatens: the nuclear non-proliferation regime; norms on refraining from the threat or use of force in international relations; and respect for UN Security Council resolutions. The failure of global powers and institutions to stop North Korea becoming a de facto nuclear weapons state is already a bad precedent.

Finally, the crisis could have repercussions for transatlantic relations. Though there are American officials who think that greater European involvement in Asia would just complicate matters, there have also been calls from parts of the administration, including then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in January 2013, for increased European engagement there. If Europeans ignore these calls entirely, they risk strengthening the perception within Washington that the value of the transatlantic alliance is dwindling.

What more can Europe do? There are clear constraints; a diplomatic initiative cutting across the longstanding Six Party Talks process, for example, or any move to soften sanctions on North Korea without significant movement from Pyongyang, would be very unhelpful. But in the short term Europe can work for de-escalation. We do not know exactly what Pyongyang wants, but we can assume that the North Korean authorities are looking for concessions from the international community: aid, or a peace treaty with the US, for example. They need to hear a consistent message that this is the wrong way to set about things. The Europeans should signal strongly to Pyongyang that its aggressive stance will get it nowhere. Statements this week by Baroness Ashton, the EU High Representative, who called on North Korea to re-engage constructively with the international community, and by Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the NATO secretary general, whose message was "Stop what you are saying, stop what you are doing", are a good start. The EU has already imposed wide-ranging sanctions on North Korea following its December 2012 ballistic missile launch and its February 2013 nuclear test. It should tell Pyongyang clearly that while it would rather reward genuine efforts to reduce tension, it will not hesitate (for example) to restrict the country’s access to foreign currency in response to further provocative acts. 

Europeans should also intensify contacts with China and Russia – which cannot be suspected by North Korea of speaking on behalf of the US – and urge them to keep up their recent efforts to discourage North Korea's aggressive posturing. President Xi Jinping’s remarks at the Boao Forum this month, in which he said "no one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains", were evidently aimed at North Korea. China also seems to be making quiet moves to tighten implementation of the UN Security Council's financial and trade sanctions against North Korea. The EU should let the Chinese know that it welcomes such steps. 

If this becomes a shooting war, Europe's practical role in Korea will be limited (though European forces may be called on to stand in for US forces in areas closer to home, and some allies may have niche capabilities to offer). But if, as most experts believe, the situation eventually calms down, in the longer term Europeans can help North Korea and the concerned powers to move forward by taking the initiative in four areas.

First, the EU should reinstate its formal political dialogue with the DPRK, postponed last November as tension around North Korea’s weapons programmes grew. The Union should also encourage the European Parliament to keep channels of communication open. The Parliament wants to maintain a firm line with North Korea but it has in the past had contacts with the DPRK's Supreme People's Assembly. Even if EU officials and MEPs are unlikely to get close to any of the real decision-makers in North Korea, such contacts would expose North Korean officials to European thinking and perhaps challenge their preconceptions about Western aims.

Second, the EU should support 'track-two' dialogues. Think-tanks and academic institutions in several European countries have acted as venues for discreet discussions between North Korean and Western experts and former officials. If the North wants to improve relations – an important caveat – then such fora could allow it to explore new approaches without commitment and without having to take public positions. A degree of official backing from European governments or the EU itself could help to convince the North Koreans that Europeans are also serious about helping to reduce regional tension and improve relations.

Third, the EU could strengthen people-to-people and cultural co-operation. The North Korean authorities do not make this easy, as the 2009 closure of the Goethe Institute reading room in Pyongyang showed. But there have been some successes, such as the visit of the Munich Chamber Orchestra in 2012 and the showing of 'Bend it like Beckham' on state television in 2010; and the British Council has a long-running programme of teaching English teachers in North Korea, using a UK-focused curriculum. Without exaggerating their impact, such connections could help to expose some North Koreans to the reality of life outside, and implicitly encourage them to draw a contrast with official propaganda about the West.

Finally, Europeans should support economic and business training. In the long run, nothing in North Korea can improve much without a radical change of economic course. Where is the DPRK going to find the people to lead and manage such a process? Inevitably, China will have the greatest part to play, given its proximity and its own history of economic transformation. But Europeans – and especially, perhaps, those from the former communist countries – should  offer their insights and expertise. According to Professor Susan Shirk of the University of California at San Diego, and a former senior State Department official, such low-key, non-political capacity building could strengthen the voices of economic rationality within the country.

What tools does Europe have? Europeans have political ties with all the players in the region. The EU has had a 'strategic partnership' with South Korea since 2010, and there are regular high-level contacts between Brussels and Seoul. The High Representative discussed the situation in the region with South Korean foreign minister Yun Byung-Se on April 8th. The EU has a wide-ranging political dialogue with Japan, from summit level downwards. 

The Union also has a formal high-level dialogue with China on strategic and foreign policy issues. China is probably the only country with any significant degree of influence over North Korea. Beijing has hitherto prioritised stability in North Korea over everything else, worried by what might happen on the border if internal change led to disorder. The EU has stepped up its contacts with Beijing on North Korea, expressing appreciation for the recent steps the Chinese have taken (for example in co-sponsoring the latest package of UN Security Council sanctions after North Korea's third nuclear test in February) and encouraging them to be firm with North Korea.

While the US, Japan and South Korea have no diplomatic relations with the DPRK, seven EU member-states – Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Romania, Sweden and the UK, though not the EEAS – have embassies in Pyongyang, which provide a source of first-hand information and a channel for communication. The Swedish Embassy also represents US diplomatic interests in Pyongyang. There are occasional bilateral visits to Pyongyang from Europe, for example by a Dutch agricultural trade mission in 2012. The EU has a small programme of humanitarian assistance, focused on vulnerable groups in North Korea. Europeans have a history of quietly facilitating dialogue between North Korea and the outside world, including through business education.

The Korean Peninsula is far away, but we should not make the mistake of equating distance with lack of importance to Europe. Good or bad, what happens there will affect us. Even if their clout is relatively limited, Europeans should think creatively about how to nudge developments in the right direction.

Ian Bond is director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

The EU's Rubik's cube: Who will lead after 2014?

Next year, EU leaders will decide who will succeed Herman Van Rompuy, José Manuel Barroso and Catherine Ashton as, respectively, the next president of the European Council, president of the European Commission and high representative for foreign affairs. These (no doubt) excruciating deliberations will begin in earnest after the European Parliament (EP) elections in May 2014.

EU watchers remember well the surprise – and for some, disappointment – that greeted the announcement of Van Rompuy and Ashton in late November 2009. Both appointments were judged to indicate a low level of ambition on the part of national governments for the EU leadership posts created by the Lisbon treaty. Likewise, the earlier reappointment of the conservative and careful Barroso for another five years was an homage to the status quo.

What do the choices of 2009 bode for those ahead? Back then, EU governments wished to avoid a trio of hyper-assertive egos at the EU's helm. But their bigger concern was to match a tiny pool of credible candidates with the expectation that the new appointments would reflect as broad a cross-section of the Union's membership as possible.

The Lisbon treaty’s requirements made this task even harder: the European Parliament – along with a majority of EU countries – must now approve the president of the Commission and the high representative for foreign policy (who is also a member of the college of European commissioners). Since the Parliament’s own presidency traditionally alternates between its left and right political groupings, the EP's negotiators insisted that one of the EU’s top three should be a socialist. That opened the way for appointment of Baroness Ashton (from the British Labour Party) as high representative. This choice probably also sets a precedent that at least one of the three positions should be held by a woman.

In addition, the Lisbon treaty says that governments should nominate a new Commission president while “taking account of the European elections” and that the EP will henceforth “elect” as opposed to simply approve the post. Hence the EP's political groupings are planning to present their own candidates for Commission president in 2014. For example, Martin Schulz, EP president since 2012, wants to be the nominee of the pan-European socialists; Viviane Reding, the EU's justice commissioner, clearly wants to run for the conservatives, known as the European People's Party (EPP); as does Guy Verhofstadt for the liberals. (If the latter two are unsuccessful in securing nominations, they may end up sharing the post of EP president as a consolation prize.) The EPP is usually the largest political party and therefore its candidate can expect to become Commission president, perhaps with some support needed from the liberals. 

The idea is to boost the democratic legitimacy of the Commission, which has gained new powers to screen national budgets as a result of Europe's debt crisis. But it is currently an open question as to whether each of the EPP, the Party of European Socialists (PES) and the Alliance of European Liberals will be able to agree upon and then unite behind a credible candidate. Furthermore, much of Europe is mired in recession, with high unemployment and poor economic prospects. Eurosceptic movements have been growing in several countries in reaction to the eurozone crisis, which means that the European election is wide open to political reverses, populists and protest votes. All of this makes the elections a potentially volatile element in the appointments process.

A second key factor will be the impact of the incumbents. Although unwisely dismissed as a ‘non-entity’ by some critics, Herman Van Rompuy has enjoyed success as the first permanent president of the European Council, even though the job entails few resources or formal powers. The former Belgian prime minister’s consensus-building skills have been important in managing the worst phases of the eurozone crisis so far, and have helped EU leaders to agree a deal on the Union’s long-term budget in February 2013. Van Rompuy’s low-key successes make it more likely that his successor will have a similar profile: the former leader of a small-to-medium sized country who is quietly tough and a proven conciliator.

Ashton has fared relatively less well. Despite some real successes – such as brokering peace between Serbia and Kosovo, and keeping the British, French, Germans, Americans, Chinese and Russians together during the Iranian nuclear diplomacy – she has attracted many brickbats. Some of this can be attributed to her lack of foreign policy experience. But a more significant reason is the mismatch between governments’ expectations that the high representative could immediately deliver confident diplomatic responses to crises in Haiti, Libya and the Arab Spring while simultaneously creating a new European External Action Service (EEAS) from scratch. Ashton herself has likened this to flying a plane while building the wings.

Moreover, while national foreign ministries tend to complain about the failures of the EU's fledgling diplomatic corps, they would be equally likely to lament a highly activist high representative. (Britain has fought a long campaign to prevent EEAS officials speaking on behalf of the EU, in an attempt to thwart ‘competence creep'.) Several countries, including France and Germany, have circulated ideas on how to make the EEAS a more effective diplomatic player in the years ahead, notably by reducing the Commission’s stranglehold over it. If such brainstormings are to lead to tangible results, governments will need to seek out an already established foreign policy ‘star’ to be the next high representative.

Third, Europe's political landscape has changed significantly since 2009. Germany has emerged as the dominant EU country while France's own economic woes have for the present reduced its power over the Union. However, Berlin remains circumspect in the area of security policy, refusing, for example, to involve itself in the Libyan conflict in 2011, while being reluctant to support the French intervention in Mali this year against jihadist rebels.

The Mediterranean countries have haemorrhaged political influence, as their economies have fallen into crisis. Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain – have either become clients or wards of the EU since 2009. Under David Cameron, Britain has exiled itself to the Union’s margins to such an extent that it is impossible to imagine a Briton in any senior EU portfolio after 2014 other than single market, competition or trade commissioner. And Poland now styles itself as the 'France of the East’: a country with a healthy and large economy,  a complement to, and restraint on, German power; and the independent, utilitarian leader of the newer member-states.

Given all these factors, who are the likeliest candidates for the EU top three in 2014? Of the Mediterranean countries, none seem to have a potential claim on a top EU post. Mario Draghi already heads the European Central Bank. And Franco Frattini – a former Italian foreign minister and European commissioner – is currently angling to succeed Anders Fogh Rasmussen as NATO secretary general in 2014. (Frattini faces competition from Belgium's Pieter De Crem, Norway's Espen Bath Eide, Slovenia's Danilo Türk, Slovakia's Miroslav Lajcak and perhaps even Turkey's president, Abdullah Gül, for the NATO post.)

Rasmussen would probably make a good high representative, especially as the former Danish prime minister could draw on his NATO experience to help develop the EU’s weak security and military structures. But the current Danish government, headed by former MEP Helle Thorning-Schmidt, is a coalition of socialist parties which would not nominate Rasmussen, a liberal. Thorning-Schmidt is currently so unpopular as prime minster that she herself is rumoured to be interested in the role of EU commissioner.

Nonetheless, Rasmussen should still be counted as a possible Council president since his candidature could be considered without an initial nomination from the Danes. Serving as the EU's rotating chairman during Denmark's 2002 EU presidency, Rasmussen successfully concluded tough negotiations over the terms of admission of eight new EU member-states, experience which should count strongly in his favour. This assumes that the post can be held by someone from a non-euro area country, however.

Poland’s current prime minister, Donald Tusk, and its eloquent foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, are clear favourites for the post of Commission president and high representative respectively, though of course both jobs could not go to Poles. Germany might back Tusk in order to cement Berlin’s political alliance with Warsaw and because it is time for someone from one of the newer member-states to get a top job. But would Tusk be strong enough to lead the Commission in difficult times, or even willing to seek the EPP's nomination for president? If not, his name should be included in the rather small pool of potential candidates to succeed Van Rompuy.

Another variable is whether Sikorski may replace Ban-Ki Moon as secretary general of the United Nations since, under the UN practice of Buggins’ turn, the next incumbent looks likely to be an Eastern European. Even if not, the UK is thought to be opposed to the outspoken and ambitious Sikorski becoming high representative: despite his British roots he has become a champion of European integration. Other potential candidates include Sweden’s Carl Bildt, Finland’s Alexander Stubb or Bulgaria's Kristalina Georgieva. The latter has impressed many as the EU's humanitarian aid commissioner.

Alternatively, Europe’s leaders may decide that – given current political realities – it would be prudent to fill one of the top EU posts with a German. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the Bundestag opposition leader, and a former foreign minister, might secure the high representative post, for example. Even if his Social Democratic Party is not in government after September, Steinmeier has significant bi-partisan appeal and was vice-chancellor in Germany’s 2005-2009 grand coalition. Furthermore, his appointment would signal a new German interest in taking on more leadership responsibility in foreign policy.

France’s present weakness is one of the most worrying political developments in today’s EU, since this has led to French insecurity, German over-confidence and a rapid deterioration of the Franco-German relationship. Ideally, François Hollande, the French president, would promote Christine Lagarde, the current head of the International Monetary Fund for Commission president. Lagarde would represent the best chance of an effective counter-balance to the North European conviction that austerity alone is the cure for the eurozone's ills.

Under Lagarde, the IMF has been the most influential international critic of EU policies guided by this orthodoxy. However, Lagarde is a centre-right politician and former finance minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, and therefore would not secure the PES ticket. She is also currently mired in an as-yet inconclusive investigation by French police into allegations of corruption during her time in government. All of this probably renders Lagarde’s candidature invalid, which is a pity: she would make a stronger EPP candidate for Commission president than either Tusk or Reding.

However, Pascal Lamy – the current head of the World Trade Organisation and ex-European commissioner – has a respectable pedigree on the left, having served as an advisor to former French finance minister and Commission president, Jacques Delors as well as a former socialist prime minister, Pierre Mauroy. Hollande should consider promoting Lamy for the PES candidacy to help shore up French influence within the Union. 

Europe's leaders have a veritable Rubik’s cube of political considerations to solve in 2014 in order to appoint a new EU leadership triumvirate. They must find three candidates who together represent the right balance geographically and politically, as well as satisfying new sensitivities over democratic legitimacy, gender and the concern that the Union is slowly splitting into a eurozone cabal and an outer ring of non-euro rule-takers. The trio's final identity is largely contingent on the eurozone crisis, which will continue to re-shape European politics in the run up to the May 2014 elections.

Given Europe's current challenges, it is to be hoped that governments and the pan-European political parties co-operate together to agree a pantheon of star candidates. But what may happen is that the election results, combined with the alchemical effect of the appointments process itself, will eliminate early front-runners and give previously unlikely nominees a new veneer of credibility. In that sense, 2014 could well be a re-run of 2009.

Hugo Brady is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.