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Two words capture the state of the EU today: pressure and acceleration.

Pressure, because of the two wars in Ukraine and Gaza. But also because of the two elections that will shape Europe’s future and that of the wider world: for the European Parliament and the US Presidency and Congress.

And acceleration if you look at the political calendar and transition. Charles Michel’s announcement of his intention to run in the European elections means his term as President of the European Council is ending fast – and politics abhors a vacuum. Moreover, several European Commissioners have either left (Frans Timmermans, Mariya Gabriel), tried to (Margarethe Vestager), or are in the process of doing so (Jutta Urpilainen, Didier Reynders). Meanwhile, Brussels is rife with speculation as to when Ursula von der Leyen will declare her intention to run for a second term and what it all means for who will get which top job.

In short, the ‘end of mandate’ is now and the question is: how can we best prepare for the new team?

This begins with a realistic assessment of the two wars, both of which are going badly. In Ukraine, the EU’s much trumpeted, taboo-breaking response is at risk of fizzling out. It is hard to overstate the seriousness of the situation and the consequences of the EU not being able to give Ukraine the means it needs to defeat Russia. It is trite but true that Ukraine is the frontline and that European security – i.e. our own security – is at stake.

It is imperative that European leaders agree at their next Summit on 1 February to give Ukraine the long-term, predictable financing it needs to stay afloat. In addition, they must ensure the supply of military equipment for Kyiv to protect its cities and infrastructure and, eventually, push out Russian troops.

In the Middle East, we see exactly the kind of tit-for-tat escalation that policymakers said last year was so important to avoid: Israel attacking Hezbollah and Hamas in Lebanon and members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Damascus; the Houthis attacking Western vessels in the Red Sea; Iran-backed militias bombing US forces in Iraq and – a first –Tehran targeting groups hostile to Iran in Pakistan.

Here the EU should do what it can to move from a logic of war to somehow rekindle the search for peace. That is the rationale of the comprehensive plan by HR/VP Borrell to achieve the two-state solution discussed at the last Foreign Affairs Council. At the same time, the EU and international partners need to uphold freedom of navigation and protect international shipping through the Red Sea and the Gulf. For this, the planned maritime mission can make a difference, provided it is accompanied by the right diplomatic outreach to regional partners and Member States provide the necessary capabilities.

In the EU, the allocation of top jobs often bears the hallmarks of a ‘European compromise’: something no one wanted at the start, but all can live with in the end.

The second step will be getting the right people for the right jobs. There is a tendency in the EU to fill leadership positions through a convoluted process where all manner of ‘balances’ (political, gender and geographic) take precedence over political stature and communication skills. In the EU, the allocation of top jobs often bears the hallmarks of a ‘European compromise’: something no one wanted at the start, but all can live with in the end.

Given the challenges that Europe faces, this method won’t do. Because of Charles Michel’s announcement of his intention to step down, the search for a new European Council President must start now. And it is essential that the political core of the EU system is presided over by someone who can forge the deals and decisions that are needed: on Ukraine, the Middle East but also enlargement and reform, China and the rest of the ‘strategic agenda’.

This brings us to the third point: probably the biggest challenge for the EU this year is how to prepare for the prospect of a return of Trump to the White House.  Current developments in the US suggest that this is a real possibility – with dramatic consequences if it happens. For Ukraine, NATO and European security but also climate change and the future of liberal democracy itself. A second Trump administration will likely be more determined, less constrained and even less mindful of allied views.

The point for the EU is to get prepared. There are things it can do now, many of which it should do regardless of who will win in November – such as ramping up support for Ukraine, getting serious about building up a European defence policy and industry, or investing in its own economic security agenda, to name just several.

Probably, the biggest challenge for the EU this year is how to prepare for the prospect of a return of Trump to the White House.

But there are also steps to specifically prepare for a Trump scenario. Europeans should invest in channels and partnerships with as many influential people across the US system as possible, including with Trump-aligned people and think tanks. They must also work with other US allies who will be faced with a similar dilemma: Canada, Japan, South Korea, Australia and the UK – and widen that circle as much as possible.

Above all, they must agree already now on core messages and red lines to communicate collectively should he win – and on who should communicate these. The worst thing for the EU would be to split and ‘bilateralise’, with a race among national leaders rushing to the White House to cut a national deal and get into Trump’s good books. Trump would, rightly, see this as weakness and desperation.

When EU leaders decide who should be the new President of the European Council, they should ask themselves: who would have the necessary stature and skills to speak on behalf of Europe to the White House come January 2025?