The Corona Presidency

13 May, 2020

A few weeks ago, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas made clear that the highly anticipated German Council Presidency will turn into a “Corona Presidency”. Meaning that, Germany’s carefully planned agenda will be dominated by ambitious new tasks to overcome the pandemic and tackle the socio-economic consequences of the crisis. Many observers have voiced concerns that this will relegate former priorities such as climate change, digitisation, and EU-China relations to the side-lines. Yet, while a re-prioritisation of the agenda is unavoidable, there is also a chance that the Covid-19 outbreak will make some of the original priorities even more acute and create the necessary political momentum for bold joint solutions.

There is no doubt the corona pandemic will be the number one theme of the German Council Presidency. As member states continue their efforts to save lives and roll back infection rates, overcoming the crisis and managing its impact must take priority. This includes relaxing lockdown measures and returning to a “new normal” – reopening borders, businesses and, equally important, the economic reboot of a European Union that is headed for a possibly unprecedented recession.

Moreover, as Heiko Maas explained, the German Council Presidency is planning to address some of the weaknesses the crisis has exposed, from the lack of medical supplies and equipment to crisis management and disaster reduction throughout Europe.

Observers rightly point out that all this will absorb huge amounts of time and resources. In addition, the German Council Presidency will have to chair two particularly sensitive dossiers: the multiannual financial framework (MFF) 2021-2027 and the negotiations on the future relationship with the UK in light of the approaching end of the transition period. As if this was not enough, the German Presidency will also likely have to take on some of the files that were not completed during the current Croatian Presidency which found itself completely overwhelmed by the pandemic.

Nonetheless, Germany made clear it will remain committed to its most important original priorities – climate change, digitisation, the economy and external relations. This is sensible as the pandemic has highlighted the interconnectedness of these topics and made them even more pressing. Yes, there is a risk these original priorities could fall into the background. But the corona virus could also provide additional political momentum to tackle these topics in a holistic way along with the socio-economic consequences of the pandemic.

A recent Financial Times article reported convincingly that the corona crisis “disproportionately hurts companies that rely on a physical footprint, while enabling digital businesses to mitigate cyclical headwinds with gains in market share.” It is clear that a successful European economic recovery programme must be combined with ambitious measures to promote the digital transformation in Europe.

The same applies to green policies and sustainability. The need to rebuild and restructure European economies in light of the pandemic also creates the chance to boost green policies and sustainable businesses. The European Commission’s executive vice-president in charge of the economy, Valdis Dombrovskis, recently stated that “creating a more sustainable and resilient economy will be a key focus of the recovery phase”. Member states are well advised to seize this chance to rebuild their economies and prioritise long-term sustainably over short-term gains for traditional industries.

Finally, EU-China relations have become an ever greater priority. Before the pandemic, the focus was on technological sovereignty, Huawei and 5G. The corona crisis has highlighted further issues such as the need to become more independent from Chinese-made medical equipment.

As Germany’s Minister of State for Europe, Michael Roth points out, the corona virus may not be a disadvantage, but perhaps even a chance for the German Council Presidency to set the right course for the future of the EU.

It is also important to emphasize that the upcoming German Council Presidency is only the first part of the next trio Presidency consisting of Germany, Portugal and Slovenia. If Germany manages to make at least a start on its vast agenda and lay down the tracks for a stronger, united Europe, meaningful progress might become a reality – if not now, then perhaps at the end of this trio presidency.

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