Expectations are high for the German EU presidency starting on Wednesday. During the six-month period, the European Union is expected to agree on both a seven-year budget and the results of negotiations with Britain on the future. In both cases, difficult negotiations are still ahead.
At the same time, the Union is working to create calmer waters from the crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic. In the search for common solutions, the eyes of many turn to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Niklas Helwig, a leading researcher at the Foreign Policy Institute, estimates that the EU presidency will be the last major show in Merkel's career as Federal Chancellor, which has lasted for almost 15 years.
The end looms, as Merkel has already resigned from her party presidency and will not run for Chancellor in next year’s election.
European politics has played a significant role in Merkel’s time as Federal Chancellor, and Merkel certainly understands the weight of expectations, Helwig estimates.
- Merkel was actually quite daring already when Germany and France agreed on a proposal for an EU recovery plan. It showed that he understood what the moment was like for the EU and the German Presidency. He’s willing to show leadership, and he doesn’t really have any other choice at a time like this, Helwig says.
Merkel has publicly stressed the seriousness of the ongoing crisis. For example, in a joint interview with European newspapers published on Friday, Merkel said that everyone must play their part in resolving the crisis. Germany has taken major stimulus measures to support the economy, but Merkel also emphasized the European perspective.
- Germany's interests are a strong internal market and the convergence of the European Union, not fragmentation. Now, if ever, what is good for Europe is good for us.
Merkel can, in a way, be seen as the de facto leader of Europe, and her role has been emphasized in the crises of recent years. Merkel has been a leader in Germany through the financial crisis, the ensuing euro crisis and the immigration crisis that began in 2015.
The forthcoming presidency is also not Merkel's first. He was Chancellor when Germany last held the presidency in 2007. Even then, the harvest remained significant. Niklas Helwig recalls that Germany played a key role in midwifery of the negotiations leading to the Lisbon Treaty.
Now, the presidency is not really responsible for the big negotiations that are going on, but for the President of the European Council and the European Commission.
Helwig says, however, that the weight of informal influence should not be underestimated when a large member state like Germany takes over the presidency. Merkel has a very strong position at EU tables.
- Let's think about the European Council. Charles Michel is the chairman, of course, but Merkel is the one of the leaders in the room who has been in power for the longest time, Helwig says.
Helwig believes that Germany is trying to help reach an agreement on difficult issues through a lot of discussions with other member states.
On the other hand, it should be noted that the EU Presidency is expected to act as a kind of impartial mediator in ministerial and working group meetings. Helwig wonders that taking on the role of mediator can be difficult for a large member state with many interests and high expectations.
The coronavirus crisis brought more room for maneuver
The progress of the coronavirus pandemic largely determines the course of the German Presidency and is present on the agenda in many ways. The onset of the crisis re-established in the spring the plans the country had already made for the season.
Helwig points out that after the mixed patterns of the pandemic, Merkel, on the other hand, has more room for maneuver both in domestic politics and at EU level.
- Covid-19 changed Germany's domestic policy. The government’s crisis management has been praised, and the support figures for ministers and governing parties have been really good.
In recent measurements, support for Merkel's Christian Democratic CDU / CSU has approached as much as 40 percent.
- These are figures that have not been seen for a moment. In recent years, the trend towards change in German politics has been that the traditional major parties, the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, have slowly but surely lost their support. Now the development has turned on its head.
According to Helwig, rising support figures will also benefit Merkel in EU arenas: it will be easier to make bold openings in EU policy when support in Finland does not falter.