A stubborn Hungary, a new-look Poland and a French president with an eye on his legacy are tipped to dominate Europe's corridors of power in 2024, at a time of election mayhem and waning German influence.
With the EU's traditional Franco-German "engine" spluttering with divisions between Paris and Berlin on issues from the Middle East to air defence, the bloc's geopolitical influence is up for grabs.
A messy EU election could leave a power vacuum that black sheep Hungary is poised to exploit, leaving Brussels in a state of "damage control".
Italy is captaining the G7 with an eye on curbing migration, an issue also preoccupying Germany's under-fire leadership as the bloc's centre of gravity shifts from Berlin to newly EU-friendly Warsaw.
In a bumper election year in which billions will go to the polls worldwide, here is our guide to the key players guiding Europe through tumultuous times in 2024.
Black sheep rules
Hungary’s nationalist government relishes its role as EU troublemaker-in-chief, often wielding its veto power to force concessions from the other 26 members of the bloc.
It raises some alarm, then, that Hungary is due to take on the EU’s rotating presidency for the second half of 2024, with Belgium steering the ship from January until June.
The presidency chairs meetings, sets EU priorities and is supposed to look for consensus on difficult issues such as the Israel-Gaza war, on which leaders struggled to agree on a statement.
The current president, Belgian politician Charles Michel, announced on January 6 he would run in the European election, raising the possibility of an early departure and of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban playing a key role by default.
Some doubt whether Hungary, which disdains Brussels and has been stripped of EU funds for undermining the rule of law, can credibly play the role of honest broker expected of the presidency.
Nonetheless, vague talk of skipping Hungary’s turn has gone nowhere so far and Mr Orban has promised that the country will “assume an intermediary role” in the aftermath of EU elections.
A key issue will be Ukraine. Hungary opposes sending arms, has blocked funds, watered down sanctions on Russia and is reluctant to bring Ukraine closer to EU membership.
EU countries may disagree on a lot of things, but one thing most of them agree on is that they do not want Mr Orban as a leader, said Gesine Weber, a research analyst and fellow at the German Marshall Fund think tank.
Someone with a technocratic background like former Italian prime minister Mario Draghi is likely to be chosen in the coming weeks to steer the EU until what would have been the end of Mr Michel’s mandate.
“It’ll be a decision driven by the need for damage control more than an enthusiastic choice for a new leader,” Ms Weber said.
France in consolidation mode
With Mr Michel soon gone, and powerful EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen giving little indication about whether she wants to stay in her job, all eyes are on the historic Franco-German relationship.
A powerful speaker, French President Emmanuel Macron has come across as Europe’s de facto leader in comparison with the more low-profile German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
“The EU has become pretty French in the past years,” Ms Weber said.
While Mr Macron likes to give long monologues wading into tricky geopolitical waters, the softly-spoken Mr Scholz tends to stick to short, familiar soundbites, when he chips in at all. His camera-friendly deputy Robert Habeck is often left to defend the government’s record.
Mr Scholz's quiet style was seen as a virtue when he ran for election in 2021, promising to maintain Angela Merkel’s steady hand at the wheel, and admirers say his careful manner makes him the right man for serious times. His critics accuse him of weakness, arrogance and going missing in action.
The French-German relationship is broken at leadership level, said Rym Momtaz, consultant research fellow for European foreign policy and security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Views in Paris and Berlin on the future of Europe diverge on a number of points, including highly-sensitive ones like defence.
A German proposal last year to strengthen air defence, including with purchases from the US or Israel, was coolly received in Paris, which would have preferred its own air defence systems, the Mistral, to be prioritised.
These disagreements are likely to persist in 2024, although Mr Scholz and Mr Macron do their best to maintain a friendly facade. At the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, the French president lauded Franco-German efficiency at responding together to the Covid-19 crisis.
In his first speech in six years in the high-profile Swiss event, Mr Macron said that Europe was facing important challenges as the US and China invest massively in their industry and wars continue in the Middle East and Ukraine.
Europe must invest to provide its middle class with well-paying jobs and keep it happy, said Mr Macron, in an apparent hint at the rise of the far-right, which is far ahead of his political family in polls in France before the European election.
Europe must also not let Russia win in Ukraine, whatever the US November presidential election result is, he said, in a reference to the possible re-election of Donald Trump.
“We must do everything to hold the world together and not give in to divisions,” Mr Macron said.
Yet EU influence as a bloc on the escalating conflict across the Mediterranean in Gaza remains limited due to internal divisions.
Some countries, including Germany, have rallied behind Israel while others, such as Ireland and Spain, have expressed more concern for potential Israeli human rights offences against Palestinians.
France is in a unique position as it tries to support both Israel’s security interests and international law, Ms Momtaz told The National.
Paris recently brokered a deal with Qatar to deliver medicine to Hamas-held hostages in Gaza as well as humanitarian aid to the civilian population.
French diplomacy has so far had little impact on Israel – a fact that Mr Macron himself admitted this week.
This reflects a decrease in western influence on Israel rather than a lack of French efforts, Ms Momtaz said.
“Big western countries like the US, France and the UK clearly have less sway than before,” she said.
With more than three years left in office, Mr Macron is conscious about wanting to build a legacy and is likely to be inclined to keep a leadership role on international affairs, Ms Momtaz added.
Many are also pointing at Poland taking a more central role in European leadership since the election last month of EU-friendly Donald Tusk to the premiership.
“The centre of gravity in Europe might become more balanced between France, Germany and Poland,” Ms Webersaid.
German under par
Unlike Mr Macron, Mr Scholz stayed away from Davos.
It is not that Mr Scholz’s schedule is unusually busy – three of his four official outings this week involve watching handball, meeting carnival jesters and paying tribute to late football star Franz Beckenbauer. Behind the scenes he has met his cabinet and held a phone call with US President Joe Biden.
Although Mr Scholz’s team played down his absence from Davos, it is certainly not the first time they have had to field suggestions that the chancellor should raise his voice.
Norbert Roettgen, a senior opposition expert on foreign policy, similarly bemoaned what he called a lack of leadership from Mr Scholz in his dealings with France and Hungary.
“Germany must take the initiative with Poland and France to reorganise security in Europe,” he said last weekend.
“We have to show the door to Orban, who is abolishing democracy and the rule of law in Hungary and is an ally of Putin. But instead of leading, Scholz is silent.”
Although not up for re-election himself until 2025, Mr Scholz could still feel voter heat this year as three states go to the polls in the former communist east, the heartland of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).
Battling to avoid the historic dam breach of an AfD win in the regional polls, Mr Scholz has toughened his stance on illegal migration, with an overstretched asylum system blamed in part for the far-right’s poll bounce.
Polling in 11 countries by the European Council on Foreign Relations found Germany to be the only one where immigration was the top voter concern, above climate change and the war in Ukraine.
Analysts said a jump in migrant arrivals “may have triggered memories of 2015”, when hundreds of thousands of people fleeing Syria claimed asylum in Germany.