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Can Germany at the helm in Brussels help Boris get Brexit done?

01 July 2020

Sabine Tyldesley examines how the German presidency of the European Council might impact the UK’s future relationship with the EU

The presidency of the European Council rotates among the EU member states every six months. Today, Germany takes the wheel until the end of the year under the banner of Together for Europe’s recovery”.

Overcoming the consequences of the coronavirus crisis for the long-term will understandably be the main focus of the presidency programme, but Germany has highlighted its intent to pursue the following areas: economic and social recovery, a stronger and more innovative Europe, a fair Europe, a sustainable Europe, a Europe of security and common values, a strong Europe in the world.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel will present and discuss her country's programme in detail at the European Parliament in Brussels at the next plenary session on 8 July but there are some things that can already be gleaned.  

Expectations are high, considering the German leader has already gained praise for her handling of the crisis in her own country. Many are hoping that Merkel can re-create her successes from Germany’s 2008 presidency, when she managed to bring partners back together after several countries rejected the creation of an EU constitution which led to a new EU treaty – the Treaty of Lisbon. Presenting her programme for the Council to the German Parliament, she expressed the need for more cooperation in crisis management reflecting on her own handling of Covid-19: “Initial reflexes, including our own, were rather [more] national than European,” she said. “That was mostly unreasonable.”

There is an expectation that this spirit of ‘more cooperation, not less’, and a pragmatic approach to tackling joint problems – not just the pandemic but foremost the climate crisis – will require more European action and thus will be the thread running through the German presidency. But it has already had a bumpy start with the Franco-German initiative for a €500 billion ‘Recovery Fund’ to support most hard hit sectors and regions stalling, as agreement on the revised Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) is yet to be found. The last summit ended without consensus. The next round of virtual meetings are scheduled for mid-July, with the European Council summit 17 – 18 July likely being the first physical meeting. If successful, face to face talks are planned to increase gradually from September.

The UK has already rejected a request to contribute to the Recovery Fund, with a Treasury spokesperson saying: “The UK is supporting the EU's efforts to tackle coronavirus, and we'll meet our obligations through the Financial Settlement. But we do not intend to go beyond what we have agreed in the Withdrawal Agreement, because we have now left the EU."

This is perhaps the embodiment of the challenge facing UK-EU relations at present, as the UK has left the EU, but remains abiding by its rules until the end of the transition period, incidentally the same time as the end of the six-month German presidency.

So what can we expect from Merkel in relation to the UK-EU negotiations as she joins her former Cabinet colleague, now EU Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen at the table?

Avoid a hard Brexit

Germany has been one of the biggest opponents to a “hard Brexit” over the course of the withdrawal negotiations, and will try to keep the EU aligned as much as possible: “Germany will campaign for the continued cohesion of the EU27; our goal is a mutually attractive agreement based on the commonly agreed political declaration.”

Now that the UK Government has made clear that it will not seek an extension to the transition period, negotiations will be accelerated. This is imperative so that an agreement can be reached by end October in time to be ratified by the remaining 27 EU member states.

Where the Juncker/Tusk double-act of the past phase of negotiations may have caused diplomatic friction, it is now the hope that the Merkel/von der Leyen duo might bring more pragmatism to drive things forward to keep the EU united whilst also not isolating the UK as a key trade partner. In practical terms, this could mean creating the space and political will for some of the mini-deals and bilateral cooperation the UK Government have been pursuing since negotiations began.

Merkel and von der Leyen’s relationship has not always been frictionless but they have known and trusted each other for years. French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire is quoted as saying “there's a closeness that pushes things forward and makes decisions easier”.

Europe’s foreign policy and COVID-19 increasing the need for cooperation

The EU has been moving towards closer cooperation from a foreign policy perspective for a while, exemplified in talks of joint armed forces and deeper integration of health services. This is also front of mind for Chancellor Merkel who often emphasises how important it is for Europe to present a united front if the EU is to avoid being caught in deteriorating relations between USA and China. A hard Brexit would further weaken the EU’s position regarding the latter.

The desire for greater joint foreign relations and international cooperation has been brought to the fore even more during the pandemic. Merkel made the case just recently, highlighting the need for a ‘Europe-wide’ approach.

While the UK’s exit from the EU may make European coordination a hard sell at home, cooperation with its European allies may be necessary and from the EU’s perspective, the UK’s engagement would be welcomed with open arms.

A European green deal

Finally, as the UK is contemplating its own “green recovery”, the climate emergency has taken full hold of the European agenda and will permeate the German presidency in all aspects of its work.

A commitment to make the European Union climate neutral by 2050 will be a major challenge but the recovery package is already largely oriented towards climate action and digitalisation. Merkel has been outspoken that while coronavirus is the primary battle, it speeds up the transformation to “a new way of working and economic activity”.

While the climate and energy agenda has been pushed to the end of the presidency’s term, this may well open the door to continued engagement between the EU and the UK on this front, particularly with COP26 on the horizon, being co-hosted by the UK and EU member Italy. Joint aims on the climate will not solve some of the key disagreements on state aid and fisheries, but it does create an impetus for future positive EU-UK joint working.

Overall, one might expect a softening of tones on the EU’s part in negotiations with the UK. Merkel will be looking to establish a legacy of intensifying European cooperation – in light of the exposed fragility of the European project. However, this will also include not alienating the UK as partners with whom vital international cooperation in a range of areas will remain vital. Merkel and von der Leyen’s attitudes and drive may well help achieve a solution both sides of the English Channel are happy with.