Is the German presidency succeeding to consolidate the Union and reinforce the European institutions?
by Nicola Beer MEP, Vice-President of the European Parliament, Strasbourg/Brussels
Big plans lie ahead. They set the EU’s direction for the next six months. As a German pacemaker on the European stage, they create a stronger, united Europe. The German Council presidency started with great expectations to fulfil its six-month mandate. The pandemic made this a historic challenge and Germany missed the chance to give the EU a kickstart for the development of a broader and strong vision of Europe’s future.
Covid-19 overshadows the agenda
Politics gained a completely different dimension. The need to make decisions of enormous importance within a truly short time and on the basis of limited data became one of the most challenging political stunts for decision makers and hence for the German presidency. Agreed.
Taking stock, we should consider the coronavirus. Anything else would be dishonest. However, presidential political work is not to be assessed exclusively under the pandemic angle. The EU had a lot on its plate: adopting the EU budget with success; anchoring the recovery plan in the multiannual financial framework; finding a way to common migration politics; providing the conference for the future of Europe with an ambitious mandate.
According to that benchmark, Europe should have become more resilient, more capable of action, upgraded in terms of foreign policy, economically outstanding, setting the ground for a Europe of innovators.
The pandemic has plunged Europe into one of the greatest existential crises since the end of World War II.
The danger of erosion is alarming, but the base problem occurred before: the lack of a common vision for the future and for the reforms of EU institutions, its competences and working procedures.
For years, the EU has lacked a coherent common policy for asylum and migration including an effective protection of EU borders. The EU Commission presented a new proposal for asylum and border protection. Unfortunately, the budget the presidency proposed for the framework of the next seven years cuts Frontex’s money to do so. Typical for the presidency: contradictory, without political ambition and vision.
Solidarity – towards a debt union?
The EU reached an agreement to quickly support the programmes for short-time working, for health systems and credits for Member States, as well investments of the European Investment Bank to save societies and economies from collapse and even, under the German presidency, a € 750bn aid package in order to manage recovery after the crisis. Rightly so. One should call it a success that EU Member States succeeded in setting up this historic aid programme, but it has not been without new lines of conflict: the south of Europe celebrated Germany for having “finally” given up resistance to common debt, while some EU states from the north were stigmatised as the so called “frugal four”. Beyond this, an essential debate came up: to take on common debt or not.
Let us be frank: the coronavirus aids are supposed to be measures of emergency. Now, a few months later, abuse is looming. Some voices are already talking about a steady aid programme. That would be tantamount to creating a debt union and the presidency would have been involved in taking that wrong path.
Foreign policy – still disappointing
In foreign policy, the expectation was not less great. The German presidency wanted to make the EU stronger together. More relevant in terms of foreign policy. The president of the EU- Commission Ursula von der Leyen set the tone: the EU should become a geopolitical union.
But a geopolitical union means being a player and not being driven. Germany failed to take a tougher stance on China. While its aggressive policy towards the opposition in Hong Kong came to a head with the entry into force of the Hong Kong security law, Germany still chose to do business as usual with Beijing. I am convinced that the policy of appeasement with China, as well as the change of approach in trade, have reached their limits regarding Beijing’s attitude towards the Uyghurs, Tibet, Hong Kong and most recently Taiwan. We have reached a dead end and need a coherent common strategy towards China on the base of trade and human rights. Europe will be implausible if it does not now let China feel concrete headwinds. A strong signal would have been to cancel the summit. Again, a missed opportunity.
Furthermore, a geopolitical union means having the right tools for it. The German presidency promised to kickstart a reform debate within the EU. The conference on the future of Europe should have been the framework for debating urgently needed reforms on several levels. Although it was planned for May 2020, at the time of writing, the sheer existence of it is in total limbo: a disappointment, which cannot be explained by the pandemic.
The EU needs to be storm proofed
Covid-19 in particular shows how fragile the EU is in its foundations, and not only when it comes to massive pressure. Precisely for this reason, it is in everyone’s interest to reform the EU from the ground up and make it truly stormproof. In addition to more majority decisions, this also includes the EU Parliament’s right of initiative. The only institution with democratically elected representatives needs a serious upgrade in setting the political agenda for the EU. An example of a strong EU Parliament during the crisis is the persistent negotiation with the Council to effectively link the EU budget with an instrument for the rule of law. The EU Parliament was able to show what can be achieved for a more democratic and robust Union with a view to common values.
The German Council presidency finally striked a last-minute compromise aiming to restore the common understanding that we all share the same values as defined in article 2 of the treaty, that a working rule of law mechanism is vital for the functioning of the EU and can be subject to judicial review. Rightly so. There was no room left to play one more time the wrong cards.