Angela Merkel confidently begins a historically difficult task in the final phase of her chancellorship. How can the European Union, deeply affected and weakened by the corona crisis, be helped to recover?
Germany will hold the rotating EU Presidency in the next six months. That places the Chancellor, even more than usual, at the center of European politics.
“Europe needs us,” she said recently without false modesty in the Bundestag. “As we need Europe.” The pandemic has, according to Merkel, “exposed how fragile the European project is.” The Union faces the greatest challenge of its existence, due to the corona crisis and the resulting economic downturn.
Merkel has been in power for almost fifteen years now. None of the European heads of government have been around for so long. Not only will her extensive experience as a crisis manager be tested in the coming months. She will also want to prove that she believes in the EU and that she is ready to devote political capital to holding and strengthening the EU together.
Until her own party, it has long been doubted whether she really had an eye for the European interest. “She’s destroying my Europe,” Helmut Kohl (Chancellor from 1982 to 1998) is said to have complained to friends in 2011.
But now Merkel – “as someone who lived the first 35 years of her life in the GDR” – says that Europe “fills me with great gratitude for its democratic promise of freedom and equality. And with the obligation to fully commit myself to this European promise. ” For someone who doesn’t really like big words, that’s almost a creed.
Her starting position for the next six months is strong. She is still the most valued politician in Germany – 71 percent of Germans are satisfied with her, according to a recent poll.
Its coalition government, initially made weak by a series of internal conflicts, has been moving with closed ranks since the beginning of the corona crisis. Its Christian Democrats are higher in the polls than they had been for years, and would get close to 40 percent of the vote.
Moreover, its European politics can count on particularly broad support in the German parliament. Euroscepticism, as so strongly represented in the Dutch parliament, is only played in the Bundestag by the radical right-wing AfD.
All this gives Merkel valuable backing for when Germany will soon have to compromise in Brussels and have to dig deep into its pockets.
The Federal Chancellor has set herself a double task for the European Presidency. Firstly, it wants to limit the impact of the corona crisis on public health and secondly, strongly promote economic recovery. With a view to the somewhat longer term, it wants to better equip the EU for a future in which Europe is more dependent on itself. The aim is to promote European sovereignty in a world increasingly dominated by the United States and China.
Two more major issues will be high on the European agenda in the coming months: the negotiations on the new EU budget and the settlement of Brexit. But Germany as EU president is not at the forefront of this.
European climate policy, digitization and relations with China will have to do with less attention than Berlin intended before the corona crisis broke out. The European Commission will launch a new initiative for migration policy in September.
In fact, the starting signal for the German Presidency, which officially starts on 1 July, echoed through Europe six weeks ago. On Monday, May 18, Merkel and French President Macron jointly presented their massive 500 billion euro recovery plan.
The plan was an important signal. Germany, which had always opposed the pooling of debt in the EU, now agreed that the Union would take on debt to finance the bailout plan. To keep the EU together, Merkel made a major political turn as a prelude to the six months in which she held the presidency.
In the meantime, the European Commission has put its own, even more extensive, plan on the table, which is now difficult to negotiate. The Netherlands, Austria, Denmark and Sweden have objected that aid for countries in great financial distress may be disbursed as gifts or grants, rather than as loans, which must be repaid.
In Germany there is much less political resistance to this. In the Bundestag, former SPD leader Martin Schulz, who was also president of the European Parliament, called the Netherlands and its supporters tauntly “wealth separatists”. Only the liberal FDP openly protested this misguided wording.
Merkel expressed himself more diplomatically this weekend. “I expect each of us to put ourselves in the situation of the others and look at the problems from their perspective,” she said in an interview with the Southgerman newspaper and some other European newspapers. For countries that already have a lot of debt, extra loans are less useful than subsidies. I am working to convince those countries that have agreed to loans so far, but reject subsidies. ”
The fact that Merkel suddenly no longer keeps his hand on the pulse has both an economic and a geopolitical background. As the largest and strongest economy in Europe, Germany has relatively good maps compared to many southern countries to overcome the crisis. At home, the Merkel government has already earmarked hundreds of billions to get the economy going again, keep businesses running or even partially nationalize them.
Poorer EU Member States have far fewer financial options. If they do not receive aid, not only will an important outlet for Germany threaten to shrink, but the gap between poor and rich countries in the EU will then widen further than it already is.
This could dangerously disrupt the balance of power in the EU, the political class in Germany realizes. If the big, rich country in the middle of Europe becomes even stronger while other countries are left behind, it can easily fuel the aversion to and fear of yet another strikingly dominant Germany.
“We should not allow the pandemic to disperse the economic prospects of the Member States, thereby weakening the common internal market, a core element of Europe,” Merkel said earlier this month. In other words, it is a well-understood German self-interest to ensure that the balance in Europe is not further disrupted.
It is still unclear whether Merkel will also work hard on the intention to redesign the Union. Macron has been waiting in vain for German willingness to cooperate with his reform plans for almost three years.
The coalition agreement of the current (fourth) Merkel cabinet, of the CDU / CSU and SPD, initially seemed to be a sign that Berlin wanted to accept the outstretched hand of Paris. “A new beginning for Europe”, is its ambitious title. Those words did not lead to many concrete new steps – until Merkel and Macron presented their recovery plan.
Suddenly, German politicians, including Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD), believed that a step had finally been taken towards a true political union and a United States of Europe. Merkel himself does not use the latter term. She advocates caution in this matter, saying that in the current crisis, there is no time to make treaty changes.
Merkel often emphasizes that European countries must cooperate much more closely, for example in foreign policy and defense. However, the Presidency will last only six months, and in that short period, Germany will at most be able to initiate new discussions in this sensitive area.
The experienced politician Alexander Lambsdorff of the liberal FDP, sister party of the VVD and D66 in Europe, does not expect Merkel to come up with, or even with a vision, great impetus for reform and further integration of the EU. “She never did that. She has always been a crisis manager, never a Helmut Kohl. That will not change anymore. ”
Correction (June 29, 2020): An earlier version of this article stated that Germany will chair the European Council. That should be: President of the Council of the European Union, or more briefly: EU President. That has been adjusted above.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on June 29, 2020
A version of this article also appeared in June 29, 2020, in nrc.next