In her Bundestag speech on Thursday (18 June), Chancellor Angela Merkel presented her plans for the Presidency of the EU Council, which Germany will hold for six months beginning on 1 July. Once again, Berlin is facing a crisis and must find a balance between decisiveness and tact. EURACTIV Germany reports.
The Bundestag has not yet received an official programme, which will only be decided by the cabinet next Wednesday (24 June), a week before Germany takes over the presidency.
Green MP Franziska Brantner tweeted this is “insulting towards the Bundestag and Europe.”
Der Bundestag hat immer noch kein Programm & keinen Plan der Bundesregierung für die Ratspräsidentschaft vorliegen – 2 Wochen vor Beginn!
— Franziska Brantner (@fbrantner) June 18, 2020
In her speech, Merkel stressed that the pandemic had shown “how fragile the European project is.”
She called for more cooperation in crisis management. “Initial reflexes, including our own, were rather national than European,” she said. “That was mostly unreasonable.”
Another crisis presidency
This is Merkel’s second Council Presidency, her first being back in 2007.
Then, Berlin faced a constitutional crisis. Already signed by member state leaders, the EU Constitution had been blocked following referendums in France and the Netherlands. The 2007 German Presidency brokered a compromise, which became the Lisbon Treaty.
In 2020, Germany will be responsible for the shaping the EU’s economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, but will also face a backlog of other issues, including reforming the European Asylum System and opening the Conference on the Future of Europe as well as the negotiations on the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF).
The pandemic has not only delayed these issues during the Croatian Presidency, but also given them a completely new dimension.
Politically, too, it is a delicate situation for Germany, which has traditionally been accused of exercising too much control in Brussels due to its economic strength. Ursula von der Leyen moving from her role as Merkel’s Defence minister to become President of the Commission added more fuel to these criticisms.
Von der Leyen clearly has this concern on her radar, demonstrated by her quick willingness to consider infringement proceedings against her home country when the Constitutional Court criticised decision making by the European Court of Justice.
Nevertheless, during the German presidency, critics could easily push the issue of “German dominance.”
No quick agreement foreseeable on the EU Recovery Fund
With a view to Friday’s (19 June) Council meeting, Merkel said that no agreement on the EU budget or the recovery fund could be expected. This is only a “first exchange” as a basis for an agreement at a later in-person meeting.
Above all, the ‘Frugal Four’ have to be convinced: Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden, who are demand that as much of the aid money as possible be repaid.
Martin Schulz (SPD), a former European Parliament president, called these four countries “wealthy separatists.” He was reprimanded by former Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt (CSU), saying “such terms should not be used to dismiss those who stand for sound finances in Europe, even if you don’t share all their ideas.”
Despite recent clashes between Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Merkel on the topic of the recovery fund, other Austrian officials have recently taken a more conciliatory tone. During a meeting with Foreign Minister Heiko Maas (SPD), Austrian counterpart Alexander Schallenberg, said he has “great expectations” for the German Presidency.
However, not all of Germany is united behind Merkel’s proposal. Far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) leader Alice Weidel said: “We have enough of our own problems to solve in this country, for which we urgently need our money.”
Climate Protection, Digitalisation, Sovereignty and Africa
Merkel also mentioned climate protection, digitalisation and European sovereignty as major challenges for the German presidency.
She reaffirmed her commitment to work for a European climate protection law. “Our goal is to neutralise Europe’s climate by 2050.” According to Merkel, the climate targets must be adjusted by 2030. Furthermore, it is important to reduce Europe’s dependencies in the digital area.
The world also needs “Europe’s strong voice to protect human dignity, democracy and freedom,” she said. The Conference on the Future of Europe could be a suitable format to discuss reform proposals, for example, in the area of foreign and security policy.
With a view to the foreign policy priorities, Merkel stressed that her agenda would focus on the joint management of the pandemic and on shaping relations with Africa in a spirit of partnership “as a continent of the future.” She also stressed her intention to hold the EU-China Summit.
[Edited by Sarah Lawton]