Germany at the helm: How Berlin kept Europe together in 2020

Germany managed to keep Europe together in a time of severe crisis. The country led diplomatic efforts to find an agreement on the EU’s seven-year budget and its recovery fund.

Federal Ministry of Finance ©

When Germany began its six-month presidency of the European Council, on 1 July 2020, the European Union was reeling from the covid-19 pandemic, the worst economic crisis since the second world war, and a series of preceding challenges such as Brexit, a lack of common ground on migration and asylum policy, and disputes over the bloc’s seven-year budget. With European health systems and economies under intense pressure, the Council presidency was a crucial intermediary in promoting smooth, efficient cooperation between member states. Berlin responded by coming up with an ambitious agenda that covered not only these issues but also a range of other policy areas: digital sovereignty, financial market stability, sustainable growth, and social and economic equality. One might ask whether any member state other than Germany could have coped with all these challenges.

As shown by the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Coalition Explorer, Germany began the presidency in an excellent position to act as an intermediary between member states. Collectively, they perceive the country as the most influential player in the union and rank it in first place for sharing their long-standing interests in EU policy. Member states contact Germany more than any other country on EU policy matters. Furthermore, they regard German policymakers as more responsive and easier to work with than their counterparts in other EU countries. And they rank Germany behind only France in its commitment to deeper European integration.

Accordingly, from the beginning, member states had high hopes that Germany would manage the covid-19 crisis. Indeed, as revealed by the survey ECFR conducted in May 2020 for its Coronavirus Special, they viewed Germany as the “most helpful” EU country during the pandemic in terms of public health issues and the economic recovery. But did Berlin meet these high expectations as Council president, given the difficult situation it inherited?

The German presidency promised “ambitious reforms in asylum and migration policy”. Member states were unable to reach an agreement on the Migration and Asylum Pact presented by the European Commission on 23 September – but this was in line with expectations, as reflected in the Coalition Explorer. Asked about decision-making on immigration and asylum policy, only 53 per cent of respondents said that their government preferred to tackle the issue at the EU level. And 22 per cent said that their government regarded this as a national issue – a higher share than that for any of the other 19 policy areas covered by the survey.

At the same time, intriguingly, respondents said that immigration and asylum policy is the second-most pressing issue for their government to resolve. Therefore, it seems that, even amid the huge challenges posed by the pandemic, member states have shown great reluctance to negotiate on a vital topic.

Berlin also aimed to expand Europe’s “digital and technological sovereignty” and to achieve a “digital transformation that is both forward-looking and based on values”. However, it was not as successful as hoped. For example, like its predecessors, the German presidency was unable to reach an agreement at the Council on an e-privacy regulation. The Coalition Explorer partly explains why this was the case. Seventy-six per cent of respondents said that their government preferred digital policy to be decided at EU level, and ranked it in fifth place among policy areas that “will be of the highest priority for your country’s government in the next five years”. However, while digital policy ranked in fourth place for respondents in Germany, it only appeared in the top five of those from eight other member states – none of them the five countries next in size: France, Italy, Spain, Poland, and Romania. This indicates that, at least when it comes to a far-reaching agenda, Germany might have simply lacked the support from member states on digital policy it needed.

The German government declared that it wanted to work towards a more sustainable economy and to strengthen the union’s commitments on climate, environment, and biodiversity issues. However, its record in this area is mixed. Berlin helped forge an agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 55 per cent (compared to 1990 levels) by 2030, and on renewing member states’ commitments to the 2030 EU Biodiversity Strategy. Yet the negotiations on the 8th EU Environmental Action Programme did not start during Germany’s term as president. And, according to environmentalists and other observers, German support for the renewable energy sector was not as strong as it could have been.

The Coalition Explorer reflects some of this ambivalence: while 35 of the 43 German respondents to the survey said that their government preferred climate policy to be decided at the EU level, only 18 of them held this view on energy policy – with 13 saying that the government wanted energy issues to be managed by a subgroup of member states. Meanwhile, German respondents rank climate and energy in second and 11th place respectively among the policy priorities for their governments over the next five years. French respondents, by comparison, rank it in the last place. Given all these considerations, it is unclear whether, in the long term, member states will be able to shape energy policy and climate policy at the national and EU levels respectively without jeopardising one another’s efforts in the areas.

Nonetheless, Germany managed to keep Europe together in a time of severe crisis. The country led diplomatic efforts to find an agreement on the EU’s seven-year budget and its recovery fund, which was widely considered to be essential to the union’s survival during the pandemic. And, as discussed, Berlin made progress in a range of other policy areas, albeit with varying degrees of success.

One of the main long-term challenges for future Council presidencies will be in creating what Berlin calls “a fair Europe”.

As the Coalition Explorer’s data on national preferences illustrates, the subsequent Council presidencies of Portugal, Slovenia and France seem likely to have varying agendas. The three countries share some top five priorities with Germany (such as climate policy and fiscal policy), but there are also significant differences between them. For example, France generally places more emphasis on foreign and defence policy.

One of the main long-term challenges for future Council presidencies will be in creating what Berlin calls “a fair Europe”. The economic recession caused by the pandemic has exacerbated inequality and threatened social cohesion within the EU, potentially playing into the hands of those who oppose European integration. Therefore, future presidencies should aim to promote EU-wide policymaking on a fair Europe by establishing mandatory levels of social protection, gender equality, and opportunities for young people. They should also promote a European public sphere, including an active civil society, as part of a democratic Europe.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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