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The German Council Presidency in Times of Pandemic: Overburdened Agenda meets Social Distancing
Op 1 juli neemt Duitsland het voorzitterschap van de Europese Raad over van Kroatië. De Duitsers hebben drie prioriteiten: het MFK, de brexitonderhandelingen en het Europees herstelfonds. Hoe kan Duitsland haar ambities waarmaken tijdens een wereldwijde pandemie?
On 1 July, Germany will, for the first time in 13 years, again take over the rotating six-month presidency of the Council of the European Union. If expectations were high beforehand that a Council presidency held by a member state with the political weight and capacity of Germany could be a game-changer, such expectations are even more prevalent now. On the one hand, Germany has already before the official start of its presidency a demonstrated a leadership role even when it, together with France, presented the Franco-German initiative for a European Recovery from the corona crisis on 18 May 2020. On the other hand, also the German Council presidency has not been spared by the corona virus.
Corona and its devastating economic effects on EU member states have had a knock-on effect on the priorities of the German presidency. It shifted much of its focus onto ensuring that the EU and its member states overcome the crisis and recover from the pandemic jointly and adequately. At the same time, the presidency must also deal with a number of practical limitations caused by the pandemic, including social distancing rules in Brussels and national capitals. In fact, much of the envisaged Council programme had to be adapted after the preparations for the presidency were already well underway, if not completed, after the corona virus arrived at the shores of Europe.
In term of priorities, the three main ones are the EU multiannual financial framework 2021- 2027 (MFF), the Brexit negotiations on the future EU-UK relationship and the Commission’s proposal for a Recovery Instrument (RI). While the success of the German presidency was always to be measured against the first two topics, the pandemic has now also added the RI onto the list. This is of course not an easy agenda to try to conclude within six months: each of the dossiers in itself already constitute a challenge. All three dossiers together form a very much overburdened agenda that does not leave much room for other topics for the presidency to deal with. While the MMF and RI are expected to absorb all political attention at least over the summer, September and October will in all likelihood be focused on the Brexit negotiations. This is because the UK has formally rejected any extension to the transition period, meaning that if an agreement is to be in place before it ends on 31 December 2020, a deal must be confirmed by October so as to give sufficient time for national and European parliaments to ratify it.
Accordingly, other topics such as the Green Deal, migration or the rule of law have dropped in the order of priority. These are longer-term issues that are perhaps not necessarily less important, but in any case less time pressing than the three aforementioned dossiers. Other priorities seem to have fallen victim to the corona virus entirely, namely the Conference on the Future of Europe, which was supposed to kick off in May 2020, and the EU-China summit, which was supposed to be hosted by Chancellor Merkel in September 2020 in Leipzig. Both events have been postponed on the grounds that no personal meetings seem to be possible in the
near future, and the Conference in particular has been overtaken by more pressing pandemic- related issues.
In terms of practical limitations, the German Council presidency must not only deal with an overburdened agenda with three very difficult dossiers; it must also do so while adhering to social distancing rules. Many in-person Council meetings will not be possible during the presidency’s term and also the Council itself, like the other EU institutions, will only be able to work at a fraction of its normal capacity according to an estimate by German Ambassador to the EU Michael Clauss.
This lack of in-person meetings make the completion of dossiers very difficult for a presidency, which is not only tasked with scheduling meetings, but is also expected to act as a mediator between the different member states. It will fall within Germany’s responsibility to foster a compromise between the different interests represented in the Council on the topics mentioned above. But with significantly fewer in-person meetings, it will be deprived of the opportunity to engage in informal talks with different parties in order to strike a deal on these rather difficult issues. An additional obstacle to the negotiations is that negotiating parties cannot be certain about the confidentiality of discussions via videoconference, as they have no knowledge as to who else might be joining the virtual room. This also makes it difficult for Germany, in its role as mediator, to broker an agreement between the different member states.
In conclusion, the German Council presidency comes at a time of unprecedented crisis for the EU. This has shaped both the priorities of the presidency and the way meetings can and will be conducted during its six-month term. And while it is true that the practical limitations caused by the pandemic in conjunction with the overburdened agenda – partially also caused by pandemic – has made the presidency much more challenging. The crisis has also opened an unprecedented window for Germany to drive forward important issues of European integration, and rejuvenated the role of the Franco-German engine in the EU. If Germany succeeds in leading the EU and its member states jointly out of the crisis, the joint recovery will not only be an important step for EU integration. It would also cement Germany’s role as hegemony in the European Union and become a vital part of Angela Merkel’s European legacy, before she leaves office in autumn 2021 after more than 15 years.
Dr. Thu Nguyen is a Policy Fellow at the Jacques Delors Centre in Berlin and an affiliated Fellow at the Montesquieu Institute. This contribution is based on a previous publication by Thu Nguyen written for the Jacques Delors Centre: Managing Expectations – The German Council Presidency.