On 1st July 2020 Germany will for the first time in 13 years again take over the rotating six-months Presidency of the Council of the EU – and with the Presidency come high hopes that a Member State with the political weight and capacities such as Germany will be able to significantly push forward the political agenda on EU level.
The negotiation on a Brexit deal, the conclusion of the EU’s multiannual financial framework, the discussions on a New Green Deal, challenges of digitalization, and the continuously worrying Rule of Law developments in some EU Member States are all core European issues, which will fall within the German Council Presidency’s term – next to the EU-China relations and Western Balkans, which it has, together with Portugal and Slovenia, identified as key issues for their Trio Presidency.
As regards the timing, the German Presidency will not only witness the first year of the new Commission under President Von der Leyen. But it will also coincide with the first year of an EU of 27 Member States without the United Kingdom. The departure from the European stage of one of the biggest opponents for reforms means that the doors are left much wider open for political changes than ever before.
Both the timing and the political context are thus the right ones for a game-changing German Council Presidency. The only problem is that German politics, and in particular German political parties, have been very little focused on Europe lately and increasingly concerned with their own troubles.
Since the last federal elections, the German Social Democrats have witnessed a staggering fall in the polls. In the aftermath of the drama that were the regional elections in Thüringen and subsequent election of its prime minister, both the Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the Christian Democratic Party (CDU) have found themselves in a serious leadership crisis.
The resignation of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer as CDU party leader following the Thüringen debacle was the final straw that pushed the party into an open internal power struggle right before the German Presidency. The contest for CDU party leadership, and with it the contest as successor of soon-to-be-departing Angela Merkel as chancellor, is now in full swing.
All of this means that there is currently only little room in Germany to think about big actions on the European scene.
And yet, this is what will be needed from the German government when it takes over the Council Presidency in a – at least from a European perspective – very crucial time. And not only would big actions be needed, but big actions would in fact also be quite possible considering the framework of its Presidency term.
All will in the end depend on whether Germany will be able to get a grip domestically and to, at least for the time being, focus on bigger, on European, issues than its own. Otherwise the German Council Presidency will not be remembered as a game-changing one but rather as one that paralyzed both German and European politics for the next year – something that neither Europe nor Germany can much afford in light of the current challenges.
Hoai-Thu Nguyen is als Universitair Docent publiekrecht verbonden aan de Universiteit Maastricht.