In less than sixty days, Germany will take over the rotating Presidency of the EU Council and will, therefore, have the task of coordinating and dictating the timing of the European legislative process for six months. Up to two months ago the German semester programme had envisaged mainly focusing on furthering the new Commission’s flagship initiatives (the Green Deal and the Digital Agenda) and closing the two main pending dossiers (the Multiannual Financial Framework and the future EU-UK relations). However, it is now clear that the six months under German leadership will have to focus firstly on the strategy for exiting the health crisis and on the plan to relaunch the European economy. Therefore, the previous dossiers will probably be overshadowed by the current situation and, therefore, von der Leyen’s priorities should be re-examined in the light of the new phase.
THE EU COUNCIL PRESIDENCY
Since the Treaties of Rome in 1957, the Presidency of the Council has been held in turn by the EU Member States every six months. As the Council’s official website explains, the rotating Presidency helps to ensure the continuity of the Union’s institutional work and to progress European legislation by coordinating and managing meetings at all levels within the Council (from preparatory groups to ministerial summits). Under a system introduced by the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, Member States holding the Presidency work closely together in groups of three, in a pre-established order. The “presidency trio” therefore sets the medium-term objectives and develops guidelines to steer the Council’s action over a period of eighteen months. On the basis of these guidelines, each of the three countries formulates its own more detailed six-monthly programme.
The current trio is made up of Romania, Finland and Croatia (which currently holds the Presidency of the Council). From July to December 2020, it will be Germany’s turn to open the presidency trio with Portugal and Slovenia.
THE NEW PHASE
Angela Merkel clarified two weeks ago that the agenda for the German Presidency would be dominated by the fight against the pandemic and its economic consequences, taking a different path from that imagined in previous months. In her traditional Saturday video message, Merkel stressed the need to press for greater European integration, citing, for example, the financial transaction tax, one of the possible dossiers for experimenting with an enhanced cooperation and to reach an agreement after years of inconclusive debates.
Moreover, as early as the beginning of April, Michael Clauß, the German Ambassador to the EU, advised his government on the major consequences that the current crisis could have on the German semester, warning that the success of the German leadership will essentially be measured by the ability of the Union to emerge from the health emergency and the economic crisis and, in short, to preserve the European integration.
THREE LEVELS OF PRIORITY
Germany does not intend to make the Presidency’s official priorities public before June. Indeed, it is understandable that Berlin will only formalise its agenda once the European Commission has updated its work programme for 2020 and thus redefine in light of the current crisis the initiatives to be taken this year. This is a move that the European government has announced in recent weeks and which should materialise in the coming days.
As reported by Politico, Germany has reformulated its programme by identifying three different levels of priority. The first obviously involves the exit strategy from the health crisis and the economic recovery plan. Assuming most of the social containment measures still in force in the majority of the Member States will be lifted by the beginning of July, one of the first important tasks of the German Presidency, as also highlighted by the Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in an editorial published in mid-April on the weekly ‘Welt am Sonntag’, will be to coordinate the easing of restrictions on the internal market, following the guidelines that will be shortly prepared by the Commission. For example, this will involve preventing that the renewed free movement of persons will be uncoordinated, simply depending on bilateral agreements between EU countries. On the economic front, the German semester will be crucial for the definition of the Recovery Plan and its financial tools, which the Commission needs to shortly propose to the Member States. It seems unlikely that an agreement on the Recovery Fund will be reached by June, as called for by the Southern European countries. Thus, it will be up to Angela Merkel’s government to steer the negotiations, playing the role of mediator between the hardliner countries and the Mediterranean bloc that many see as the most appropriate for Germany since the beginning of the crisis.
The second category of priorities includes the dossiers that have remained pending in recent months and can no longer be postponed. First of all, the long-term EU budget, blocked in the Council for almost two years. As already known, the Commission is going to present a new reinforced version, as part of the European response to the economic crisis. This will be a historically complex negotiation with new problematic issues (e.g. the revision of the MFF will include the creation of the Recovery Fund) that Germany will have to inevitably close by the end of the year, in order to avoid that the start of the 2021-27 EU programmes will be postponed. The other outstanding issue concerns the future relationship between the EU and the United Kingdom. Yet, there is a concrete risk of a showdown in the autumn, given that the Brexit transition period will end in December and that the UK appears to refuse any possibility of requesting an extension (Boris Johnson’s government has until 30 June to act).
The third group of priorities basically includes the key initiatives envisaged by the von der Leyen Commission, including, in particular, the European Green Deal, the Digital Agenda and the new industrial strategy. Before the Covid-19 outbreak, the German Presidency had been oriented to leaving a mark on those files, with the aim of supporting the first major steps of the new legislation proposed by the incoming Commission. If the climate and digital priorities are re-examined in light of the crisis, a fast track could be provided for the new pharmaceutical strategy, which the Commission had scheduled for the end of July, and for other health policy issues (the EU’s Beating Cancer Plan and the digitisation of national health systems, which are already in the pipeline, and the strengthening of the ECDC, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control).
In the days of Covid-19, every programme on paper must deal with the difficulties of practical implementation. At the moment – as reported by Politico – only 10% of the preparatory meetings normally scheduled in the Council are taking place regularly, due to social containment measures and various restrictions on mobility. The German Presidency could theoretically increase this to up to one third of the Council meetings normally scheduled, however, this would still be a strong limitation on European legislative activities.
The main obstacle is not so much the voting procedures – remote voting is well established and allowed under exceptions to the Council’s rules of procedure – as the negotiation procedures. Meetings by videoconference reduce or eliminate the possibility for bilateral confrontations between delegations and brief exchanges between officials of different countries, which can only be fully exploited in face-to-face meetings. Germany will also have to deal with this problem.