On 26 February 2021 GLOBSEC and Hanns Seidel Foundation Slovakia held an online event “A Unifying Presidency Amid an Unprecedented Crisis: Evaluating the German Council Presidency” where the speakers reflected on the German Presidency and identified some of the achievements and missed opportunities.

Speakers at the event were:

Barbara WOLF, Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany to the Slovak Republic, Germany

Ionela Maria CIOLAN, Researcher, Center for Strategic Studies, National University of Political Studies and Public Administration, Romania

Tereza NOVOTNA, Senior Research Fellow, EUROPEUM and Free University Berlin, Czech Republic

Paul SCHMIDT, Secretary-General, Austrian Society for European Politics, Austria

Marcin ZABOROWSKI, Editor-in-chief, Res Publica Nowa and former Director of the Polish Institute for International Affairs, Poland

The German Council Presidency will be one to remember. In a time of a pandemic, brewing economic crisis and difficult negotiations over the next multiannual financial framework (MFF), among other challenges, the Presidency achieved some transformative for the European integration steps—sharing fiscal responsibility and rule of law conditionality. In its six months Germany’s strategy to include all member states (MS) in a dialogue and to seek compromise while using its political weight and capabilities, has amounted to the successful negotiation of the MFF and NextGenEU, Brexit trade deal, ambitious climate targets, and a common vaccination purchasing strategy.

Alongside the accomplishments, however, the speakers also recognised the areas where Germany could have done more. Main shortcomings were identified in the pursual of common foreign policy and the implementation of the vaccination rollout. Many questions remain in relation to the last-minute investment agreement with China. As some of the speakers pointed out, for Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), this agreement is more unfortunate than a step in the right direction—politically, economically, values-wise. While the German Presidency was successful in negotiating in the realm of budget, trade, and climate when it came to the neighbourhood, the EU again was unable to step up fast and assertively, e.g., Belarus, East Mediterranean, Nagorno- Karabakh, West Balkans enlargement process—all important aspects for CEE.

With Europe struggling in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, hope was on the horizon with MS agreeing on a common vaccination procurement strategy. Yet, two months after the end of the German Presidency, the citizens and the national governments are disappointed. While the speakers agreed the vaccination process itself was appropriate, the communication, the coordination, and the implementation has revealed shortcomings. Consequentially, citizens are experiencing economic and health hardships, lockdowns, limitations of core European freedoms, and confusion. There is a rising cycle of dissatisfaction and blaming. To mitigate this, MS and EU institutions must improve communication political ownership, and fill the gap between decision-making and implementation.

Overall, when the European Union needed strong leadership, the German Presidency came at the right time to achieve policy goals and respond to the health crisis. The last-minute change of the agenda, due to the pandemic, and the heavy load of priorities were handled in a high standard with the right negotiation strategy. As Portugal now holds the Presidency, much is left to be accomplished. The decisions made will have to be implemented and the process is never very straight forward. Ultimately, the speakers agreed that working together on policy issues, through dialogue, and becoming a strong global actor through a common strategic approach should continue to be prioritized.

Main takeaways

Accomplishments:

  1. Inner-EU relationships: Germany worked to reach common approaches with other EU member states. With a focus on compromise and inclusion, Germany worked with member states, such as the frugal four, on the Next Generation EU financial framework and Poland and Hungary on rule of law.
  2. Agreement on MFF and NextGenEU: The transformative acceptance of sharing fiscal responsibility and inclusion of rule of law conditionality mechanism might have the most significant consequences for the EU in the long run.
  3. Brexit: The German Presidency saw the finalisation of the trade deal with The United Kingdom.
  4. Climate: Germany was able to work towards an agreement on reaching a 55% reduction target in emissions by 2030. By accomplishing this policy goal, it provided a strong signal for other global actors for the future of climate emission standards.

Missed opportunities:

  1. Vaccine Rollout: While the common vaccination procurement strategy was the right step, serious shortcomings are evident. Citizens’ expectations were unduly heightened, while the implementation of the rollout continues to be problematic.
  2. EU foreign policy: The German Presidency has under-delivered in negotiating fast and assertive common measures to crises in the European neighbourhood.
  3. China: The EU-China investment agreement failed to consider the entirety of the European Union. Countries, particularly in Western Europe, can receive potentially greater benefits from the trade deal, while CEE will not. Further, greater cohesion on responses to Chinese 5G networks is necessary, as member states have been conflicting over an appropriate response to this technology.
  4. EU Enlargement: The process continues to be stalled and even the personal friendship and influence of Chancellor Merkel with the Bulgarian Prime Minister has not brought about a breakthrough.

Event Summary: A Unifying Presidency Amid an Unprecedented Crisis: Evaluating the German Council Presidency