The German EU Presidency – a ship in troubled waters?

by Thomas Krings

The German EU Presidency – a ship in troubled waters?

As a Senior Commission civil servant has pointed out to me several times: “Smaller Member States always do better and more successful EU Presidencies.”

At first sight that seems to be true. With the German Presidency of the Council of the European Union just around the corner, one may struggle to find much information about it. When looking at the website of the German Foreign Ministry (Auswärtiges Amt), you have to literally search for any hint of their upcoming Presidency. The sentiment in Berlin seems to be  “yet another one…” and, once again, the Germans find themselves in a role which they last took on during the first half of 2007 with a government which was also led by Angela Merkel.

This distinct lack of interest may also be explained by the fact that European policy is considered to be somewhat of a domestic question and is, therefore, first and foremost a matter for the Chancellery and not by the Foreign Ministry in Berlin.

Unlike smaller EU Member States which use their EU Presidencies as a platform to showcase their capabilities on the international stage, one could be under the impression that the larger EU Member States view it as another task they must take on. In spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, it took some time for the Presidency to develop a detailed programme and reveal the 18-month priorities of the Trio of Presidencies with Portugal and Slovenia who will respectively take on the presidency during the first and second half of 2021. In all fairness, the upcoming German EU Presidency clearly demonstrates how unpredictable politics have become in a time characterised by COVID-19.

In March, the German EU Ambassador, Michael Clauß, had written a letter to Berlin highlighting the various challenges ahead, starting with the logistical ones. After physical meetings had been considerably reduced, Clauß estimates that for regular meetings, one could reach approximately 30% of the normal “traffic” in Brussels.

The German Presidency will have to face three particular challenges. Firstly, of course, they will need to continue the fight against COVID-19 and all its economic consequences in Europe. After quite some time, EU leaders will physically meet again in Brussels on 17 and 18 July to discuss the recovery plan and find ways to respond to the COVID-19 crisis and propose a new long-term EU budget. Secondly, they will need to find a reasonable agreement with Great Britain after Brexit as the transition period for the UK will conclude on 31 December 2020. A third challenge for the German Presidency will be that under normal circumstances the European Commission produces 90% of all legislation and thus creativity regarding other topics is certainly limited. The Germans will have to deal with “any other business and all the rest”, but will certainly need to focus on prominent topics such as the fight against climate change and migration policy.

The coming six months will show to what extent the German government led by Angela Merkel and her pragmatism will be able to steer the EU through troubled waters. The first item the German Presidency has already been dealing with ahead of the launch of the Presidency was the joint German-French proposal of the € 500 billion COVID-19 recovery fund. Maybe our friend from the European Commission is wrong and we will see that big countries can also have successful EU Presidencies.

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