On December 15, 2020, the Institute for European Politics hosted its last digital lunchtime discussion of the year on the topic of “A Preliminary Assessment of the German EU Council Presidency”, which Germany held in the second half of 2020. Furthermore, the publication and presentation of the second, completely revised and updated edition of the IEP’s standard work “Handbuch zur deutschen Europapolitik” (“Handbook on German European Politics”) also served as an occasion for discussion.
Gunther Krichbaum, Member of the Bundestag and Chairman of the Committee on European Union Affairs, and Dr. Katrin Böttger, one of the two directors at the IEP and (co-)editor of the “Handbuch zur deutschen Europapolitik”, reflected on the efforts of Germany’s EU Council Presidency and discussed the challenges of the past year together with the participants.
The event was moderated by Prof. Dr. Mathias Jopp, Senior Advisor of International Programs at the IEP and (co-)editor of the “Handbuch zur deutschen Europapolitik”. First, Dr. Funda Tekin, one of the two directors at the IEP, welcomed the participants, followed by introductory remarks by Jörg Wojahn, Head of the Representation of the European Commission in Germany. The speeches of Gunther Krichbaum and Katrin Böttger were succeeded by an open and lively discussion which mainly focused on the future of the EU.
The speakers agreed that considering the global Covid-19 pandemic and its immediate challenges, the German EU Presidency had been a success. At the same time, however, it was one of the most difficult German presidencies due to the pandemic and disputes on the rule of law mechanism and the EU budget.
The compromise on the codification of the rule of law mechanism which links EU funds to compliance with rule of law principles, was generally supported by the guests, even though they had hoped for a stricter wording. It was emphasized that Germany had initiated a substantial discussion on possibilities of sanctioning violations against the rule of law by individual member states. The decision was also important for EU accession candidates: To demand that they follow rule-of-law principles that are disregarded by EU member states would be difficult to justify.
Linked to the rule of law mechanism is the conflict about the EU financial budget, which EU members Poland and Hungary threatened to block in protest against the former. The assessment of the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) and the “Next-Generation EU” reconstruction fund that the member states ultimately agreed upon was positive: “Exceptional times call for exceptional measures”, the invited guests agreed. The speakers denied that the EU had crossed the Rubicon by its massive borrowing within the reconstruction fund. The measures were covered by law and for many member states, it would not have been sufficient to simply grant loans. At the same time, it was necessary to make sure that this exception would not become a general practice. The more modern design of the MFF, including stronger integration of ecological standards, was seen as a positive signal to younger generations.
The Q&A session and discussion focused on the topics that had not been given enough attention during the German Council Presidency, such as EU migration policy or the investment agreement with China, on which an agreement was finally reached shortly before the turn of the year. The Conference on the Future of Europe was also addressed repeatedly. The participants affirmed that such an important discussion must be conducted with physical presence and include national parliaments. Although the Lisbon Treaty leaves room for interpretation, some developments, such as natural disasters or pandemics, cannot be foreseen. In this respect, the Conference on the Future of Europe could well result in long-term changes such as treaty amendments.
Overall, the rule of law mechanism and the reconstruction fund, as well as the common European vaccination strategy and decision to keep national borders open, were seen as signs of a European solidarity that had been missing in the first Covid 19 wave in spring 2020.
The IEP would like to thank Gunther Krichbaum and Katrin Böttger for the lively discussion and Jörg Wohjahn for his opening remarks.