German Chancellor Angela Merkel has laid out her country’s priorities before the European Parliament in Strasbourg at the start of the country’s six-month stint at the helm of the EU under its rotating presidency system.
Merkel focused on five areas where Europe needs to make progress in order to emerge unified and strong from the Covid-19 crisis: fundamental rights, solidarity and cohesion, climate change, digitalisation and Europe’s role in the world.
And she came with a message.
Using the slogan, “Together for Europe’s recovery”, she conveyed Germany’s determination to do its utmost to help the EU tackle the huge challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Germany is prepared to show extraordinary solidarity,” she declared, “to build a Europe that is green, innovative, sustainable, more digital and competitive.”
Show the ‘added value’ of Europe
Merkel also told her audience of MEPs that “in many member states, opponents of Europe are just waiting to misuse the crisis for their ends” and insisted that the EU must “show them all where the added value of co operation in the European Union lies”.
Back in May, Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron proposed the creation of a one-off 500 billion euro recovery package that would be funded through shared EU borrowing. The move marked a major step for Germany, which has long opposed any type of joint borrowing.
The EU Commission has expanded on the proposal putting forward plans for a 750 billion euro fund made up mostly of grants. But this idea is facing resistance from Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden, dubbed the “Frugal Four”.
They oppose grants with no accompanying demands on the recipients.
Aware that the Frugal Four still need persuading, Merkel said that while the people of the regions hit hardest by Covid-19 should be able to count on the solidarity of fellow European nations, the financial effort involved “must not overburden the economically strong member states in a one-sided way”.
Persuading the Frugal Four
Douglas Weber, a specialist on the European Union at INSEAD and author of European Disintegration? The Politics of Crisis in the European Union, detects a real sense of purpose in Germany’s attitude to its stint at the helm of Europe. He reckons that in the early stages of the crisis, amid the impression that Italy was struggling alone, there was a genuine fear in Berlin that unless something radical was done the EU might start to fall apart.
He sees persuading the Frugal Four of the merits of the 750 billion euro grant scheme as “the single biggest task of the German presidency in the next few weeks”. But he expects agreement on a perhaps less generous version of the plan – and with strings attached.
Weber sees the fact that Germany takes up the helm of Europe at this time as a “happy coincidence”. He points out that Germany has “close ties with far more other EU member governments than any other member state” and that Merkel’s 15 years of EU experience and Germany’s financial and economic strength, will be hugely useful at such a crucial time for the bloc.