This week marks the start of the sixth-month German presidency of the European Union. As has happened to many an EU member state before them, the Germans have already found find their original presidency agenda overtaken by events, notably the coronavirus crisis. Indeed, we might well call this the Sturm and Drang presidency after the German literary movement in which emotions took centre stage following a period in which literature was dominated mostly by rationalism.
The main emotions at play are public anxiety about the future, exasperation and frustration with the EU's initial reflex of closing borders and blocking trade when the coronavirus hit, and a general sense of dissatisfaction with the lack of political progress on the bloc’s asylum policy, environmental goals and budget.
The German presidency was initially expected to focus on the budget (the Multilateral Financial Framework in EU-speak), the EU’s digital agenda and European Green Deal, with many Commission proposals up for debate and at least partial decisions over the next six months. Thanks to the damage left in the wake of the coronavirus’s rampage across Europe, the German presidency’s first priority is now launching an European economic recovery.
Never want to let a good crisis go to waste, the European Commission has tabled several proposals that could kill two birds with one stone. For example, parts of the European Green Deal may get accelerated in the context of green stimulus measures such as new sustainable finance rules and the recently proposed Renovation Wave aimed at “increasing the rate and quality of renovation of existing buildings and thereby help decarbonize” the EU’s building stock. Likewise, several digital initiatives including an AI strategy, digital platform regulation, and an EU data cloud project, are geared towards unlocking the EU’s innovative and entrepreneurial potential while increasing consumer confidence in all things digital.
The coronavirus crisis is also expected to give a boost to measures to help the union better respond to crises in general. A new EU health programme named EU4Health aims to fill the gaps revealed by the pandemic. Member states are primarily competent for health policy, but the EU can complement and support national measures and adopt legislation in specific sectors. Germany has signaled willingness to give some more power to Brussels on health matters while retaining the status of health policy as a matter of national competence. The additional powers could help Brussels improve coordination among EU member states for the fight against transmittable diseases such as COVID-19 and better care for patients with cancer or rare diseases.
Lastly, while the German presidency would certainly rather think about anything else then Brexit, it will need to devote many more meetings to finalizing the divorce agreement with the United Kingdom before the end of the year following the latter's decision to leave the European Union. The UK has requested preferential treatment on everything from financial services to fisheries, but the EU has been resisting its calls to continue to enjoy full access to the EU market without a series of quid pro quos.
In part in response to the Brexit vote, the German presidency hopes to launch a high-level Conference on the Future of Europe similar to a constitutional convention that the EU organised almost 20 years ago and which led, in fits and starts, to the Lisbon Treaty which is still the law of the land in the 27-nation bloc. Ironically, it was that constitutional convention which first opened the door to allowing EU member states to secede from the bloc in exchange for them agreeing to greater integration among members.
Lobbying the gentle giant
While Germany may well have strong opinions on all of the topics above, its ceremonial role as President of the European Union means that it must stay decidedly neutral and not take sides. The role of the president is primarily to chair EU summits and meetings of ministers to make progress on a political and regulatory agenda that is largely developed for it by the European Commission.
Judging by the Commission’s own work programme, which includes open consultations on everything from food irradiation to money laundering and terrorist financing to trans-European energy infrastructure, consumer strategy and pharmaceuticals, the Germans will be kept busy.
So rather than lobby the gentle giant at the top of the Presidency, instead seek to collaborate with the many others at the table, engaging across EU member states to get your points across. For Germany, seek input at home – after all, the country is already preparing election platforms for the national elections in 2021.