Again and again crisis: The fight against the corona pandemic has determined Merkel’s second EU Council presidency. But some would have wished for more than just crisis management from the Chancellor.
By Christian Feld, ARD capital studio
It is a situation that the Chancellor knows only too well: Germany holds the EU Council Presidency for six months, and the word crisis dominates. That was the case as early as 2007 when Angela Merkel took over the chairmanship for the first time. At that time, referendums on an EU constitutional treaty failed. She managed to get the reform of the EU back on track.
Thirteen years later: Council presidency under difficult conditions in a pandemic. The European Union is facing the “greatest challenge in its history,” said the Chancellor in her government statement in the summer.
Angela Merkel is by far the longest-serving and most experienced head of government on the EU stage. Your time in the Chancellery is entering the final phase. Merkel publicly stays away from overly big terms such as legacy.
For many observers, the end of the Council Presidency was once again an exemplary demonstration of the Merkel method. “It was the ultimate expression of her way of leading Europe,” says Jana Puglierin of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) think tank. Not only the scientist points out the breakthrough achieved in the EU budget package totaling 1.8 trillion euros.
It was a tough struggle until the very end. Not only was the multi-year budget at stake, but also an additional pot of money to deal with the pandemic.
Merkel even crossed her own dark red line for this and agreed to joint debts. But Hungary and Poland threatened to veto a new mechanism that would link the disbursement of EU money to a rule of law review. It was an extremely difficult negotiation: “In the final phase, there were great doubts as to whether it could be done,” says a senior Federal Foreign Office employee in retrospect.
A Plan B – without Poland and Hungary – had long been in preparation. That, however, was an option that would have violated Merkel’s iron core principle: preserve unity, keep the store together as much as possible. And if – keyword Brexit – one member wants to go partout, then the rest have to stick together all the more closely.
Is it a good compromise?
When the trillion package was blocked, the Chancellery, which sets the pace and tone of the Federal Government’s European policy, but also Merkel herself led the talks that brought about the breakthrough. In the end – as is so often the case in the EU – a compromise emerged. In a democracy there is never the optimum because you always have to find a majority, said Michael Roth, European Minister of State in the Foreign Office, in an interview with the ARD capital studio Middle of December. But he could represent this compromise “very, very well and with full inner conviction”.
Merkel received a lot of praise for the success of the negotiations. President-in-Office of the Council Charles Michel praised the fact that she was “totally involved” “with creativity, with great determination and will and with an unwavering commitment to Europe”. Katja Leikert, Vice-Chairwoman of the CDU / CSU parliamentary group, speaks of an “outstanding achievement” that European cohesion has been preserved.
But there are also critical voices, including in the EU Parliament. For the political scientist Puglierin from the ECFR, there remains an aftertaste. Merkel should have shown Hungary and Poland more toughness: “I find it unsatisfactory that Merkel never really broke with Orban and did not advocate expulsion from the European People’s Party.”
The European Union has never been a pure harmony event. But does the project have a permanent future if the cracks get too deep? What if the perspectives on common values diverge too far?
The budget blockade is just one example. Another: Cyprus recently blocked EU sanctions against Belarus in order to achieve sanctions against Turkey. Merkel’s strength is to keep the EU compromise machine running even in the most difficult situations. Is this pragmatic approach sensible because more is simply not possible? “Ignoring the deep rifts in the EU will only make the problems worse in the long run,” says Franziska Brantner, European politician for the Greens in the Bundestag ARD capital studio: “Angela Merkel lacks the courage to face these conflicts openly and to develop a vision for a Europe of different speeds.”
The trillion package has been launched and new climate targets have been set. Those are big dots on the plus side. However, the fight against the pandemic has also marginalized many issues, such as how the EU sees its relationship with the US and China. How do you intend to achieve the goal of “global political capability” declared by former Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker? After all: shortly before the end of the year, the EU and China agreed in principle on an investment agreement. The asylum reform, however, did not really make progress.
“Together. Making Europe strong again” – this was the motto of the German government in July. Indeed, Angela Merkel’s second presidency focused on what runs like a thread through her time as Chancellor: the management of acute crises in Europe.