Taking stock of the German EU Council Presidency – A success?

February 25, 2021

In order to gain insights into the work of the European Union, we had planned to travel to Brussels last year. Unfortunately, due to the Corona pandemic, the trip had to be postponed and we zoomed to Brussels once again. As Germany took over the EU Council Presidency, Global Bridges hosted a videoconference with David McAllister in June 2020, who gave us a presentation on the challenges of the German EU Council Presidency. On February 25, 2021, we had the chance to take stock of the past six months with Dr. Katarina Barley, member of the European Parliament since 2019 and its Vice President. The event was moderated by our member Dr. Daniel W. Bloemers.

Review of the German EU Council Presidency

“The expectations of the German EU Council Presidency were excessive”, Dr. Katarina Barley startet her presentation. From her point of view, this was mainly due to the timing. On the one hand, the previous Council Presidency had remained largely inconclusive due to the ongoing constitution of the European Commission. On the other hand, important negotiations, such as the final negotiation of the BREXIT and the multi-annual financial framework, as well as the Corona crisis, took place during the time of the German Council Presidency. According to Katarina Barley, especially the Corona crisis showed the strengths and weaknesses of the European Union “under a magnifying glass”: at the beginning, just national efforts, but then quickly emerging european cooperation regarding the admission and transfer of patients across borders and the procurement of vaccines. Particularly regarding the latter issue, the balance is mixed, which is related to the distribution of competencies in the health sector.

With regard to the multi-year financial framework, there was not so much an expectation of the German Council Presidency, but rather a fear of the consequences, said Katarina Barley. The fear was especially pronounced among the states that had been particularly hard hit by the Corona crisis and “still suffered from the financial crisis, especially in these countries.” The Franco-German proposal to provide loans that do not have to be repaid was received with “relief and –  though not being a political category – gratitude”, especially in these states.

One point of particular pride for Dr. Barley, as a MEP and Vice-President of the European Parliament, was the rule of law mechanism that has been introduced, this mechanism provides a rule of law monitoring by the European Commission and an annual review of the rule of law in all member states of the European Union. The mechanism, she said, was not as strong as the Parliament had demanded – for example,it only covers violations that affect the EU budget, but not things like protection of minorities. But without the Parliament it would  not have probably come at all. The bottom line, she said, is that the rule of law mechanism adopted, decisively strengthens Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union, which refers to the rule of law, and is one of the greatest merits of the German EU Council presidency.

As other dominating points of the Council Presidency, Katarina Barley also mentioned the adoption of a common transparency register for all three European institutions, the renewed sanctions against Russia in connection to the Nawalny case as well as the BREXIT agreement. The latter is “acceptable for the European Union and more difficult for the United Kingdom.” As the most challenging problems, from the perspective of the European Union, Barley assumes the Northern Ireland issue as well as the level playing field in terms of equal standards for the EU internal market access. After all, the quality standards are linked to the status quo, and a future tightening in the EU will not necessarily transfer to the standards in the United Kingdom. Against too strong deviations on the side of the United Kingdom, the European Union has the possibility to react, but this will almost inevitably lead to complex legal disputes.

In retrospect, Katarina Barley assessed two points of the German Council Presidency negatively. First, the Conference on the Future of Europe, which did not provide for genuine citizen participation and generally “stood blocked on the sidelines.” The other negative point was the major issue of China, which was supposed to be a common thread of the presidency but was unable to take on that role due to the Corona crisis. Mrs. Barley drew the conclusion of the EU-China investment agreement to be acceptable. An investment agreement is not the same as a trade agreement and has a clearly limited scope. In addition, the commitments that China has made are very remarkable.

In summary, however, Katarina Barley stated that the German EU Council Presidency was a success and fulfilled the  expectations.

Digitalization – EU as a value-based pioneer

In response to questions from participants, Dr. Barley pointed out that a “sense of urgency” was clearly evident at the political level, which “is also not just lip service, but is also evident in the allocation of resources”. In the traditional economy, people are still suffering from the failures of the past, which also seem to be clouding the “sense of urgency”. In addition and above all, Katarina Barley sees above all the determination toward China, which is breaking through a common European position with its 17+1 format, as a weak point in competitive awareness.

On the other hand, the European Union has recognized digitalization as a competitive field for quite some time. The General Data Protection Regulation (DSGVO), has proofed as role model and has been adopted almost unchanged in more than 70 states, including California, home of Silicon Valley, Barley said. She sees the European Union’s advantage in taking a values-based approach, which neither follows full monetization, as in the U.S., nor surveillance, as in China.

The European Union’s pioneering role in this area is also reflected in the way the European Parliament works. Working is possible on a hybrid basis, even the votes and reports in the plenary and in the committees function remotely.

The EU in a conflict between external competitiveness and internal acceptance

Mrs. Barley pointed out that one cannot speak of a general anti-European attitude among the population and that the picture is very differentiated anyway. The Polish government is for example not particularly pro-European, in contrast to the population that appreciates the EU. Moreover, it could also be that indicators such as the voter turnout in the European in contrast to the population that elections are misleading because they point to national problems instead of European ones; She outlined this referring to the exemplary ease of  Czech Republic.

The approaches are diverse, Katarina Barley said. Erasmus+, for example, would increase European awareness and cohesion, and smart social media campaigns would increase voter turnout.

Katarina Barley emphasized, that the EU project stands at a crossroads. The growing influence of euroskeptic parties could become a crucial test in the near future. The phase in which the government participation by national-conservative parties, such as the FPÖ in Austria, caused outrage is over, she said. The rule-of-law conditionality adopted during the German EU Council presidency was a “big step in the right direction, but we have not yet reached our goal,” Dr. Barley concluded.