BERLIN (AP) – Germany, the greatest economic power of the European Union, takes over the rotating presidency of the block of 27 countries amid huge challenges and great expectations as the continent struggles with the consequences of the corona virus pandemic. Berlin’s six months in the EU seat are probably the last major turn of Chancellor Angela Merkel on the international stage.
The German era at the helm of the EU, which starts on Wednesday, is praised by historic moments for the bloc.
Initially, the bloc will seek to agree on a massive package to take the affected economy out of the corona virus crisis and its future budget. Ultimately, the final departure of former UK member from the EU single market is expected – with or without an agreement. In the meantime, the EU has to struggle with how to deal with an increasingly assertive China and prepare for whatever happens in the US presidential election in November.
Berlin, which will chair the meetings of the 27 ministers of the EU countries, will have to help prevent new cracks from emerging as the damage from the pandemic becomes more apparent and concerns remain about a possible second wave of infections. Europe as a whole has seen more than 190,000 confirmed virus-related deaths during the pandemic – nearly 40% of the world’s officially reported deaths – and stems from the blockage in many countries that have put a heavy burden on their economies.
Germany’s motto as president is “together for the restoration of Europe”. Merkel recently told the German Parliament that “we should not allow the pandemic to cause the economic prospects of the EU Member States to fall apart.”
“The anti-democratic forces, the radical, authoritarian movements, are just waiting for economic crises to be abused politically,” she added. “They are just waiting to arouse social fears and spread uncertainty. Working for sustainable development in all regions of Europe is also a political tool against populists and radicals. ”
Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron proposed in May to set up a one-time recovery fund of € 500 billion ($ 561 billion) to be filled by shared EU loans. That is a great step for Germany to break through its longstanding opposition to any form of joint lending.
The EU executive Commission has extended the proposal to plans for a fund of EUR 750 billion, which mainly consists of grants. It faces resistance from countries called the “Frugal Four” – Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden – which oppose subsidies and are reluctant to release money without obligations.
It is up to Germany to help reach an agreement quickly, ideally when EU leaders meet for their first personal summit in months from 17 to 18 July, both on the Recovery Fund and on the EU’s seven-year budget from 1 January .
“Our job will be to act as an honest broker for compromises and solutions between Member States,” Merkel said in a weekend video message. “That’s not always easy,” she added with characteristic understatement.
Germany’s turn follows a hard ride for Croatia, the newest member of the EU, who held the presidency when countries responded in March to the explosion of COVID-19 infections with uncoordinated border closures and other restrictions.
Merkel, 65, who plans to step down when her fourth term ends next year, certainly has the experience to bump into each other. She led Germany through an EU presidency in 2007.
Since then, she has steered her country and influenced EU policy-making through the global financial crisis, the eurozone debt crisis, the 2015 migrant crisis, and now the corona virus crisis. Germany’s medical and economic response to the pandemic has garnered critical acclaim, boosting Merkel’s popularity and giving a sense of unity to a coalition government formerly known for fighting each other.
“We are fortunate that the Germans are taking over in these difficult times,” said senior parliamentarian Philippe Lamberts, a green party member from Belgium. “Hopefully they exert maximum pressure to reach an agreement.”
“The German Presidency is determined by the success or failure of the recovery plan,” he said.
Yet Berlin and the EU have other things on their plate. Relations with China are crucial at a time of growing concern about trade tensions, human rights and the fate of Hong Kong. An EU-China summit to be held in Leipzig in September was postponed due to the pandemic, but we hope this can happen this year.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called on Monday to move the summit “as soon as possible” and said it is “indispensable for Europe to speak with one voice to China.”
He said that the cornerstones of the German Presidency will be “solidarity and sovereignty”. He pointed out that Europe should analyze its “strategic dependencies”, for example on medicines made in China and India and others on information technology. And Merkel has promised to put climate protection high on the agenda.
But Germany does not expect to find a solution for everything in the next six months.
While Germany may have the clout to push negotiations for an agreement on future relations with Britain, those talks are firmly in the domain of the European Commission and Berlin has no intention of getting involved in shaping of the details.
“Nobody thinks that these problems we have now can really be solved within six months, but Germany is a very large EU country with a really very strong diplomatic service and has the strength and will … to continue the European agenda, “Daniela Schwarzer, the director of the think tank of the German Foreign Relations Council in Berlin, told NDR television.” And that is very important. “
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