All eyes on Berlin as Germany starts the Council Presidency

On 1 July, Germany took over the Presidency of the Council of the EU from Croatia, for the second half of 2020, which is already dubbed the ‘Corona-Presidency’. The upcoming six months will bring historic challenges as the management of the recovery from the current health crisis will coincide with some fundamental political choices in the EU, and the outcome will determine the future direction of European integration.

As one of the most powerful Member States of the EU takes over at this crucial moment in time, it will have to play multiple roles at the same time.

Crisis management

First and foremost, the German Presidency will have to play its role as ‘crisis manager’ in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on epidemiological developments and assessments, the German Presidency will seek to increase coordination in Europe to gradually return to a fully functioning Schengen Area. Furthermore, Germany is expected to lead the politically complicated negotiations on potentially expanding the list of third countries from which travel to the EU is allowed. These priorities will be central during the whole German Presidency mandate.

EU budget negotiations

Germany will also take an active part in managing the negotiations on the new Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) 2021-2027 and the Next Generation EU Recovery Fund during the summer months. The main challenge will be to find common ground between the hard-hit Member States, such as Italy, Spain and France on the one hand, and the ‘frugal four’ – Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden – on the other hand, with the latter group being against grants as part of the Recovery Fund. Germany will be directly responsible for the legislative work on the different sector programs within the MFF (e.g. Horizon Europe, Just Transition Fund and InvestEU) and the Recovery Fund, and will lead the trilogue negotiations with the European Parliament on the financial framework, once there is political agreement on the general features of the future budget. France and Germany expressed their ambition for a quick agreement by end of July, as European leaders are set to meet face-to-face on 17 and 18 July.

Brexit negotiations

With the Brexit transition period ending on the 31 December 2020 and the United Kingdom declining the opportunity to extend this deadline, the German Presidency will have yet another prospective challenge. Once an agreement has been reached at European Commission level, the Member States will have to give their consent. German EU ambassador Michael Clauss stressed that Germany will be exclusively focusing on “brokering agreements between the 27”.

The German Presidency program expresses the Presidency’s ambition for a comprehensive partnership between the EU and the UK. However, it also reads that the Member States will not accept an agreement that would distort fair competition within the Single Market. If there is an acceptable agreement before the end of the year, the German Presidency is expected to align Member States in its role as ‘Brexit-Broker’.

Work program

The work program sets out, in broad terms, the policy priorities for the second half of 2020. In general, Germany will prioritize the digital and green transitions throughout all of its activities. The German Presidency is committed to an innovative Europe based on three pillars: expanding the EU’s digital sovereignty, enhancing competitiveness and a sustainable and stable financial architecture. It will also ensure that the Green Deal’s implementation will contribute to the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe.

The German Presidency will have an extremely challenging task of fostering European unity in the budget negotiations in the face of existing difficulties such as the COVID-19 crisis and Brexit. For more information on the German Presidency’s sector-specific priorities, please read our analyses of the German priorities in the fields of digital & tech, sustainability and transport:

EU Summit – EU leaders fail to agree on top jobs and long-term climate strategy

On 20 and 21 June, European Union leaders met in Brussels for a two-day summit to reach an agreement on who the next leaders of the EU institutions will be and to discuss the EU’s strategic agenda for the next five years. Additionally, they also planned to discuss climate change and the bloc’s long-term budget.

Unsurprisingly, the Heads of State and Government of the EU failed to agree on a name for the next Commission President and will meet again on June 30 to try to finally seal a deal. Gathering just a few weeks after the European elections, the leaders were determined to agree on key appointments before the new European Parliament has its first plenary session in the first week of July. Ahead of the summit, European Council President Donald Tusk was already expecting stiff opposition from some EU leaders to the EPP’s Spitzenkandidat Manfred Weber. He proved himself right at the end, with EU leaders ultimately being divided: Emmanuel Macron called the whole Spitzenkandidaten process, which ties the appointment to the results of the elections, a fiction. Angela Merkel (Germany, EPP) and Mark Rutte (Netherlands, Renew Europe) were less harsh in their assessment and are still hoping to secure support for their Spitzenkandidaten at the next European Council.

Moreover, not only the European Council is divided, but also the European Parliament strongly voiced its opposition against EPP Spitzenkandidat Manfred Weber. The Socialist and Liberal groups in the European Parliament openly opposed Weber’s candidature. Lastly, the hesitation on the part of the European Parliament to agree on a single candidate could benefit the European Council, which could force a candidate on the European Parliament. Of course, this course of action depends on the European leaders getting their acts together and acting forcefully. In order to do that, they will have to agree on a suitable candidate sooner rather than later.

The appointment of the next European Commission President thus appears to plunge the EU into an institutional crisis. Still, the difficulties in the current negotiations should not be exaggerated since also in 2014, the final decision was made only in late August. However, at the time, the EPP and S&D still had a joint majority and were able to agree on a single candidate, contrary to the current situation. As such, it still remains unclear who will ultimately fill Jean-Claude Juncker’s shoes.

The European Council also failed to agree on the 2050 climate goals as Poland, Czechia, Estonia and Hungary opposed the inclusion of an explicit date. The EU split on climate change measures showed once again the rift between the western and eastern Member States. The latter heavily depend on a fossil-fuel economy and thus do not support targets already agreed by the bloc as they perceive them as damaging to their economies. The conclusions of EUCO called on the Commission and the Council to work further towards a climate-neutral EU in line with the Paris Agreement while taking into account Member States’ national circumstances and respecting their right to decide on their own energy mix. The issue is expected to come up again at the next European Council with an agreement scheduled to be reached at the end of 2019.

During the summit, the EU leaders did agree on a strategic agenda for 2019-2024, in which they pledge to protect citizens and freedoms, develop a strong and vibrant economic base, build a more climate-friendly, green, fair and inclusive future and defend European interests and values on the global stage. The strategic agenda will serve as the framework for the actions of the next European Commission. Together with a joint program from the four major political groups (EPP, S&D, RE and the Greens), both documents will heavily influence the working programme of the next European Commission.