The European Union: The challenges facing the German presidency of the Council of the European Union

Translated by Marie Peltomaki, proofread by Marine El Hajji

Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, will be holding the Presidency of the Council of the European Union during a six-month period, from 1 July to 31 December 2020. This year, the rotating presidency will be shared between Portugal and Slovenia.

The German presidency of the Council of the European Union has published a programme on their official site, describing the focal points of their work of the six months to come. The listed subjects raise the question of the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, a pivotal concern of the Council. The European Union has not been well enough prepared to tackle the crisis and its sanitary, social as well as economic consequences. On 21 July 2020, following extensive negotiations at the European Council, the twenty-seven member states reached an agreement on sharing the debt and on a European recovery plan of 750 billion euros, benefiting first and foremost the member states in the south.

Council of the European Union?

On the institutional level of the European Union, the Council of the European Union – which also goes by the name of the Council of Ministers – is part of the trio of significant European institutions together with the European Parliament and the European Commission. The Council of Ministers, situated in Brussels, is composed of ministers from the member states and of the permanent President and head of the European diplomacy of the Foreign Affairs Council. Together with the European Parliament, the Council reviews and adopts the budget and the European laws that the European Commission proposes.

The presidency of the Council of the European Union was introduced by the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009 and is a rotating presidency between three member states. Each country is given a working period of six months. The “trio” works closely together for 18 months, setting clear goals to accomplish and proposing a common programme whose defined subjects must then be further explained in detail by the three countries. The main objective of the German presidency’s programme is to work towards the recovery of the European Union in six fields: a complete overcoming of the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic recovery, the creation of a stronger and more innovative Europe, a just Europe, a sustainable Europe, a secure Europe with common values, as well as a strong Europe on a global scale.

“We are aware of the fact that there are high expectations of Germany’s presidency…” — Angela Merkel

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the German presidency is highly anticipated. The European economy has been struck to the core, and the countries in the south like Spain, Italy and Portugal have paid the price. Regarding the economic situation of the European Union at the moment, the German presidency will be focusing on the recovery of Europe, from both an economic and a sanitary standpoint. In the programme, the German presidency stresses the fact that the European Union will not be able to recover from this unprecedented crisis alone, and that cooperation between the member states is needed.

Regarding the health issue, the European Union needs to show solidarity when it comes to providing medication and care that the patients will be needing. Overcoming this crisis cannot be a unilateral effort, therefore, it is imperative that the member states work together. Countries like Italy, that have been heavily affected, should not feel neglected anymore by the European Union, who has failed to act in time. The health of the Europeans will be central to the future crisis management, especially now with the reinforced EU Civil Protection Mechanism. The aim of this mechanism is to prevent potential disasters from threatening the inhabitants of the member states. If a country does not have the necessary treatment capabilities in an emergency situation, the EU Civil Protection Mechanism allows this country to ask for help on a European level.

After four days of negotiations at the European Council, France and Germany have managed to convince the so-called “frugal” countries – Denmark, Sweden, The Netherlands, Finland and Austria – to adopt the economic recovery plan of 750 billion euros. The European Union’s long-term budget of 1.850 billion euros for the period of 2021–2027 has been accepted by the member states as well. During a plenary session of the European Parliament held on Thursday 23 July, the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) discussed the economic proposals made during the negotiations at the European Council. After more than three hours of debate, the MEPs threatened to block the 2021–2027 budget, as for them it did not add up and should be reviewed.

Geostrategic and commercial ambitions

The European Union needs to remain a player on the international scene as well, especially from a commercial point of view. In order to assert itself internationally and keep its economic weight globally, the trade agreements between the European Union and China are vitally important. As a matter of fact, the summit between the EU and China was initially scheduled to take place in September 2020, in Leipzig, Germany. The aim of the summit was to discuss and decide on a more transparent and just investment protection agreement. Through many discussions with Beijing, the European Union wish to strengthen its relationship with China, that has been negatively affected by the lack of transparency during the Covid-19 pandemic, but also due to the actions violating human rights during the protests in Hong Kong.

As for the terms of a post-Brexit agreement concerning future economic activities between the United Kingdom and the European Union, they remain to be determined. On 7 July 2020, the negotiations between London and Brussels slowly picked up, as they had been put on hold up until now because of the health crisis. The task is becoming even more complicated now that the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, refused to prolong the transition period going as far as 31 December 2020, leaving only a short period of time for the two parties to reach an agreement and to avoid a “no deal” situation. In other words, if no agreement is reached, the United Kingdom will have to abide by the rules of the World Trade Organization. The European Union fear a scenario of unfair competition from the United Kingdom because of high custom duties and thorough controls. The German chancellor warns against the possibility of no deal.

As it currently holds the presidency of the council of the European union, Germany has until 31 December 2020 to commit to its programme and to strengthen the European Union. The German presidency is facing a situation that had never been seen before, and the current economic and social state of the member states is not making the job any easier.

Cover photo credits: Marcel Langthim, Pixabay.

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