In July 2020, Germany takes over as President of the European Union. It’s a fraught time to lead the union which has been slow to react to COVID-19 and needs a new direction. With the pandemic, the U.S.- China stand-off, and a global economic crisis – Chancellor, Angela Merkel has her work cut out.
By Ambassador Gurjit Singh*
It is an interesting time for Germany to assume its six-monthly rotational Presidency of the E.U., which starts 1 July. Angela Merkel is still Chancellor of Germany, despite some concerns regarding her continuance. She will manage this Presidency, with a sharp reduction in physical meetings, which the E.U. specializes in, and take unprecedented steps for economic and other initiatives that will be needed to counter the shocks of COVID-19.
The E.U. is fortunate to have Merkel and her former Defence Minister, Ursula von der Leyen as the European Commission (E.C.) President. The German duo face a great challenge ahead.
The German Presidency occurs once every 13 years, and this time its goals include a greener economy, enhancing digitalization, reforming migration and re-engaging the E.U. with the U.K. and China.
Much of this agenda will go slow, as Europe expects Germany to develop the E.U.’s capacity to manage the COVID-19 crisis, deal with issues challenging the E.U.’s integration, and to pass the ambitious EUR 750 billion stimulus package. According to German MPs, better handling of the crisis at home and a strong economy, place an even greater responsibility on Germany.
Germany’s success will be measured by its ability to meet the E.U.s growing expectations.
Merkel has already written to the leaders of all parties in the European parliament. She will work closely with Portugal and Slovenia, who will follow Germany’s presidency of the E.U. and are collectively called the Trio. The preceding Trio comprised of Romania, Finland and Croatia and the following will comprise of France, the Czech Republic and Sweden.
Dealing with the COVID-19 crisis is at the top of the agenda. The E.U. was slow to acknowledge its assistance to early stricken nations such as Italy and Spain. Merkel now advocates a Team Europe approach, with health coordination for determined action, information and knowledge-sharing, and a campaign against fake news. German Health Minister, Jens Spahn, indicates that strengthening the capacity of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control with an additional budget and human resources is also likely. Other priorities include returning drug and medical technology production to Europe, dealing with cancer and enhancing the digital health care system.
The Franco-German, Recovery Plan of 18 May, had marked the European Green-Deal as high priority. The revised goals indicate that this will be maintained as Green initiatives and digitalization will aid post-COVID-19 recovery.
Economic recovery will be Germany’s responsibility to navigate. This includes the Covid Recovery Fund, the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) and the budget for 2021-2027. The revised MFF provides for an additional EUR 1 trillion to fund recovery. That will include EUR 500 billion in grants to E.U. members and EUR 250 billion in concessional loans.
The issue of migration will also be addressed, as Germany believes in “re-regulating responsibilities and preventing individual states from being overburdened.” This means the Common European Asylum System may be reformed.
Brexit will land squarely in Germany’s lap as it is to be completed by 31 December. It will need all of Germany’s ingenuity to traverse.
So will the relationship with China. The EU-China Summit scheduled for September in Leipzig, now postponed due to COVID-19, was set to be a big event, and the first meeting of all E.U. leaders with President Xi.
But China’s fracture with the West has gone deeper than the U.S. trade war. Security tightening in Hong Kong led to calls from ten European parliament members for a more robust response from the E.U., akin to the U.K.’s approach. China’s willingness to come aboard with the E.U.’s commitment to the Green economy and open-up opportunities for European companies, has been lacking. A summit with no outcomes would have been “an embarrassment,” according to Reinhard Bütikofer, head of the European Parliament’s delegation to China.
The E.U. may seek a strong response to China, but its countries have differing perspectives. China has expanded its outreach to Europe since Xi came to power. Italy is part of the Belt and Road Initiative. The 17+1 engagement with central Europe is unmatched by the E.U. Germany itself has a deep trade relationship with China and its managers have already returned, in June, to German factories in China.
The U.S. Presidential election in November will be a landmark. Most E.U. leaders prefer pro-E.U., Democratic candidate, Joe Biden; but they will also prepare for four more years of a Donald Trump administration.
Against this background the German Presidency seems all set for a series of crises management maneuvers to protect the E.U.s health, economy, and integrity. If it succeeds, it will be a big hurrah for Merkel in her last year as Chancellor. If it fails, then the European Project itself will be in jeopardy.
*About the author: Gurjit Singh is a former Indian Ambassador to Germany. He is currently the Chair of the CII Task Force on the Asia Africa Growth Corridor and Professor at the IIT, Indore.
Source: This article was written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.
 Von Der Burchard, Hans and Mischke, Judith, ‘German Corona Presidency plan pivots to crisis management’, Politico, 3 May 2020, https://www.politico.eu/article/germany-angela-merkel-coronavirus-covid19-european-council-presidency-seeks-to-master-crisis-management-and-eu-reform/ Accessed on 8 June 2020
 Goßner, Christina; Stam, Claire and Lawton, Sarah, ‘All eyes on Germany’s ‘crisis’ presidency, expected to lead EU recovery’, Eurativ, 28 May 2020, https://www.euractiv.com/section/future-eu/news/all-eyes-on-germanys-crisis-presidency-expected-to-lead-eu-recovery/
 Personal interviews June 2020
 See note 1 ibid
 Federal Ministry for the Environment, Natural Conservation and Nuclear Safety, ‘German-Franco Statement on the European Green Deal‘, Government of Germany, 18 May 2020, https://www.bmu.de/en/download/common-statement-on-the-european-green-deal-and-a-european-recovery-plan-1/ Accessed on 8 June 2020
 The MFF is a 5-7-year EU budget. It sets limits on spending sector wise, ‘Multiannual financial framework: Shaping EU expenditure in The European Council’, European Council, https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/policies/eu-budgetary-system/multiannual-financial-framework/#:~:text=What%20is%20the%20MFF%3F,MFFs%20usually%20covered%20seven%20years. Accessed on 8 June 2020
 Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure, ‘Germany’s 2020 EU Council Presidency’, Government of Germany, https://www.bmvi.de/EN/The-Ministry/Germany-EU-Council-Presidency/germany-eu-council-presidency.html#:~:text=There%20is%20no%20permanent%20presidency,Council%20of%20the%20European%20Union. Accessed on 8 June 2020
 Walker, Richard, ‘EU-China summit: What really happened?’, DW, 4 June 2020, https://www.dw.com/en/eu-china-summit-what-really-happened/a-53688837 Accessed on 8 June 2020