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EU presidency: Germany gets mixed scorecard

December 30, 2020

In six months at the helm of the Council of the EU, Germany has overseen the adoption of a new budget, coronavirus fund and climate targets. Yet many issues were left unaddressed, as Bernd Riegert reports from Brussels.

Angela Merkel wearing a mask in front of an EU logo
Germany's turn at the presidency of the Council of the EU was dominated by one topic: the pandemicImage: Olivier Matthys/AP Pool/dpa/picture-alliance

On December 10, after long and tough negotiations between EU member states over a new budget and coronavirus stimulus package, along with a mechanism under which all member states undergo a peer review of their rule of law status, an agreement was finally reached. The next day, a relieved German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, "That takes a load off my mind."

The deal at the final summit meeting of the Council of the European Union under German presidency came after weeks of uncertainty. Merkel, the bloc’s longest-serving head of government, had mustered all her experience and utilized Germany's economic clout to get Poland and Hungary to unblock the EU budget — the biggest in its history, worth a total of €1.8 trillion ($2.2 trillion), including a brand-new coronavirus stimulus package. This was an impressive feat for Angela Merkel during Germany’s presidency of the council.

If Merkel had failed to forge the deal, the EU would have found itself in a serious crisis, said Daniela Schwarzer of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) in a webinar reviewing the German presidency. She said the fact that grants, and not loans, are being made to states shows the severity of the situation.

Budget breakthrough

Historic budget

In July, at the outset of Germany’s presidency, the bloc’s 27 heads of state and government agreed to the finance package after four days and nights of tense negotiations. The Germany ambassador to the EU, Michael Clauss, recalled in the webinar how the talks came close to breaking down several times. But Chancellor Merkel and Charles Michel — the president of the European Council — succeeded in reaching a consensus that took all states' interests into account.

However, several months later, Poland and Hungary vetoed the package over the planned Rule of Law Mechanism. For a long time, both EU members have taken flak from the European Commission and European Court of Justice (ECJ) for undermining the rule of law. Poland and Hungary finally accepted the mechanism after the remaining 25 member states agreed to modify and delay its implementation.

This back-and-forth says a lot about the internal status quo of the EU, says DGAP expert Daniela Schwarzer. She says it shows how "two leaders decided to instrumentalize ... this huge deal for domestic reasons.."

While she concedes there was considerable pressure to sign off the badly needed budget, she believes that doing so at the expense of modifying the Rule of Law Mechanism could cause problems in the mid-term.

Viktor Orban and Mateusz Marawieki
Hungary's Viktor Orban (L.) and his Polish counterpart Mateusz Marawiecki initially vetoed the EU budgetImage: Zoltan Fischer/Hungarian Prime Minister's Press Office/Handout/REUTERS

Mutual debt

For the very first time, EU states are incurring hundreds of billions in mutual debt to counteract the pandemic's economic impact. Will this historic change bring the bloc closer together?

"History will tell if that is the case," said Michael Clauss. "I have my doubts, but you can say the EU has grown with the challenges."

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas dubbed his country's EU Council presidency the "corona-presidency," as the pandemic has largely dominated the agenda, while foreign policy plans were pushed into the background. "We had only 30% of our normal meetings," said Clauss. Consequently, EU leaders focused on urgent business only, he said.

More ambitious climate targets

A last-minute deal to reduce the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions by 55% — up from 40% — by 2030 is another major accomplishment during Germany’s presidency of the Council of the EU. Member states who depend on fossil fuels, such as Poland, were won over by promising them financial help in transitioning to renewable energy sources.

"At this moment in time, with the EU being in the COVID-19 crisis, having the German presidency was a lucky historical coincidence," says Janis Emmanouilidis, who heads the Brussels-based European Policy Centre (EPC) think tank. He says smaller EU states could not have brokered the kind of compromise deals that Germany did. He says Chancellor Merkel acted as an effective mediator, adding that she would be missed when her term as chancellor ends in 2021.

Overall, Emmanouilidis gives Germany’s presidency of the Council of the EU almost full marks, but not quite, owing to the many deficits caused by the pandemic.

Many unresolved issues

Merkel herself has conceded that she did not accomplish as much as she had wanted. Speaking at a press conference after the EU summit, she said: "We had more planned; I will say that openly."

The bloc has been unable to improve ties with Turkey, for instance. For now, the EU will impose light sanctions on Turkey over the ongoing dispute about gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean. No progress has been made in accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania, either, because of a veto from Bulgaria. Summits with China and the African Union had to be canceled. A “Conference on the Future of Europe," intended to initiate institutional reforms, was scrapped as well.

Turkish research vessel Oruc Reis
Turkey's search for gas in the Mediterranean has provoked regional tensionsImage: picture-alliance/AP/Turkish Energy Ministry

And the hotly debated questions of how to regulate EU-bound immigration and deal with asylum-seekers have not been answered either. It will be on Portugal, who will take over the presidency, to address these vexed issues, where Poland and Hungary are once more blocking compromise.

Many issues, therefore, were left unaddressed during Germany's presidency. Even so, Germany alone is not to blame, Clauss said. The bloc's complex structure — and divergent member state interests — also partly accounted for these shortcomings, he said. He cited the inability to adopt universal, EU-wide coronavirus safety measures as one example. Some member states require citizens to spend 14 days in quarantine, while others demand only 10, seven, or five days. Sweden does not require citizens to spend time in quarantine at all.

"I wish more decisions were based on qualified majority voting," said Clauss. The need for unanimity, he said, slows down decision-making in many areas. His tip to his successors is: Expect the unexpected.

How is von der Leyen doing?

This article was translated from German


Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union