There was a long-running ad campaign that ran globally for years and carried the catchphrase “Germany — Better by design”. Honestly, the way things are working out with the European Union and the multiple challenges it faces now, you could almost swear it was planned that the Germans would be taking over now. Better, by design – or simply the good luck the way the rotating presidency of the EU worked out.
Yes, there are many things about the structure of the EU that is indeed cumbersome but that’s the price Europeans pay for bringing 27 different governments, peoples, traditions and cultures together under one big political, social and economic tent. And yes, it is a bit like a three-ring circus at times.
But right now, you couldn’t ask for a better circus master to run it all than German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Every six months the presidency of the Council for the EU rotates between all of the member states — with Romania holding it until June 30, and Germany taking over for the rest of 2020.
Quickly, the Council for the EU is the formal title given to the very top level, where the political leaders of all 27 gather to thrash out the decisions that shape the bloc. Below them is the European Commission, the cabinet-like structure that oversees the day-to-day running of the bloc and its budget; the directly elected European Parliament that formulates EU laws, policies and budget; the independent and separate European Court of Justice that oversees that body of laws; and then other institutions such as the European Central Bank that oversees monetary matters and the euro – the common currency used by 19 of the 27 members.
But power ultimately rests with the Council. And for the next six months, that means Chancellor Merkel is calling the shots. She’s pragmatic, smart, patient, has a very clear notion of what the future of the bloc should look like, has a background in medical and clinical research so understands the nature of the coronavirus pandemic fully — and comes from a part of Germany that only knows too well the dangers of authoritarian leadership and the very practical effects of ideological divisions.
Thankfully, Berlin takes over now after an underwhelming six-months of Croatia at the helm.
At a time when Europe project is at a critical juncture over its future, Chancellor Merkel is the right woman in the right place at the right time. She has a proven record in handling finances, is the longest-serving leader in Europe, is respected on the world stage, has stood up to Washington and Moscow in the past and, with some 18 months left before her long-announced resignation takes effect in Germany, has nothing left to prove and is beholden to no one.
Chancellor Merkel understands fully how power politics work — the ability to claim a victory is more important than winning one. That’s why there will be some sort of a deal [on Brexit] hammered out between London and Brussels.
Here’s how Marcus Tons, the leading Social Democrat in the Bundestag’s European Affairs Committee put it: “I believe it is a stroke of luck that Germany is taking over the presidency of the Council at this moment, where we are in one of the most serious economic and health crises of the last 100 years. We are the largest and strongest economy, we have come through the pandemic best, and that is why we now also bear the greatest responsibility for ensuring that Europe emerges from the crisis and that the issues arising are resolved.”
There’s the small matter of the EU’s €750 billion (Dh3.08 trillion) recovery funds to be doled out in the coming months as well as setting the EU’s roughly €2 trillion budget for the coming six years. As well as setting the path for economic recovery across the wider bloc, Chancellor Merkel will have to tackle the delicate fight between the fiscally conservative northern nations and those referred to by the unfortunately derogative acronym of PIGS – Portugal, Italy, Spain and Greece – over the right financial responses to the crisis. Berlin is also determined that nations such as Poland and Hungary who fail to live up to the full ideals of the EU will be penalised through the budget process.
Then there’s that small matter of Brexit.
The Brits had until the end of June to ask for an extension to the transition period. They haven’t, which means that come the end of this year, the United Kingdom will no longer be considered to be part of the EU. When the UK left on January 31, the transition period started – a time when all of the EU laws, rules and free movement of people, services and goods continued as it the Brits were still in. The transition period bought time to figure out what comes next. Well, what comes next will be decided over the next six months – under Chancellor Merkel’s watch.
Chancellor Merkel understands fully how power politics work — the ability to claim a victory is more important than winning one. That’s why there will be some sort of a deal hammered out between London and Brussels. No, it may not be comprehensive, it may not be perfect — but what compromise is? It will, however, have enough for Prime Minister Boris Johnson to be able to bloat of how great it is Britain is great again, free to do as it will, trade as it will, sets out a new relationship with the EU, blah, blah, blah. But it will be a deal Chancellor Merkel will shape – and that won’t hurt the long-term future of the bloc despite the Union Jack-backing headlines in London.
Fisheries will be key in the talks and, as it happens, the whole EU fishery quota regimen is also up for renewal.
If there wasn’t enough on Germany’s plate with that, Berlin has also indicated it wants meaningful reforms and progress on things like the European Green Deal, digitalisation, taxing internet giants and reform of the common asylum system.
Yes, a busy six months ahead — and German efficiency was never as important as now.