Germany must engage in a debate on the next generation of the EU's role as both a builder, a gardener and a night watchman. If not, national particularisms threaten to implode the Union internally.
In answering this question, I would like to remind you why the presidency of the Council of the EU plays a key role in the system of European integration today. It is a unique institution that combines two methods of integration important for the country exercising it: intergovernmental and community (supranational).
The EU presidency is part of the decision-making process both in a member state and in the European Union. However, it is not a technocratic and apolitical formula for exercising power. Like other EU mechanisms and procedures, it is subject to a process of politicisation and democratisation.
On the one hand, the presidency is used in a member state as an element of an internal political game, and on the other hand, it becomes very important in ‘playing’ national preferences and ‘settling’ between representatives of the governments of the member states.
It also plays an important role in intergovernmental inter-state negotiations, in which there is no lack of confrontation, competition and rivalry.
A pretext for serious internal debate
The presidency is also an excellent political occasion to show a member state as a country extremely involved in European politics and the process of its internal Europeanisation. It is also a pretext for a serious internal debate on the future of European integration and the role of states in the EU.
Certainly, in the period from 1 July until the end of December 2020, Germany will take advantage of these opportunities, because Germans have always been able to manage their place in Europe and the EU perfectly. This time they will do it without fanfare, without spectacular events and parties.
For the time being, there will not be a European Convention or an intergovernmental conference at which a new treaty would be adopted, announcing the European Union 2.0. Nobody will announce the transformation of the EU into the United States of Europe or the Europe of Nations.
The COVID-19 pandemic and other crises that currently dominate Europe (including refugees, the consequences of Brexit and the recession) are not conducive to this.
The main and extremely important goal of Germany will remain to maintain the cohesion of the Union and solidarity in the Union, as national particularisms threaten to implode it internally today.
As Poles, we know perfectly well how easy it is to destroy what has been built over the last 30 years. The European Union is not indestructible.
The German presidency must remind everyone that in order for the Union to last, it must be cared for. Together, not all alone or just some of us.
There is not enough Europe in this Union
At the beginning and end of the presidency, the intentions and results of the presidency are presented at the forum of the European Parliament (EP). We still have to wait for the latter.
However, it is worth referring to the announcement and what has already been done. Listening to German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the EP and Bundestag once again, I am convinced that she still remembers the famous words of her good political friend, former European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who in his 2015 State of the Union address said:
“There is not enough Europe in this Union. And there is not enough Union in this Union. We have to change this. And we have to change this now.”
This sentiment still remains valid, especially since the deficits it describes have not been overcome to this day. How will the Germans manage it? This question was also asked by Radosław Sikorski, nine years ago in Berlin, during the Polish presidency. I advise everyone to return to his words in his speech Poland and the future of the European Union. There are important and still valid arguments.
It is good that at the centre of the German [residency there is a person – an EU citizen – with his or her health, environment, work and overall well-being. This is certainly a new key to the future of the European Union.
For this reason, Angela Merkel’s speech and the entire program of the German presidency are very much in line with Ursula von der Leyen’s document A Union that Strives for More, published in July 2019. This is no wonder, the more so that the new president of the European Commission has been politically cooperating with the chancellor for many years, part of her government in different capacities, including as Minister of Defence.
Let us now turn to the content of the presidency and their consequences for the future of the EU. It will not be surprising that the crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic has dominated the political debate around the world – including in Europe.
The risk of internal and external disturbances caused by it increases from week to week. That is why the main task of the presidency and other EU institutions for the coming year and the following years is to care for, protect and protect people. The threat of the COVID-19 pandemic has shocked Europe and the world, testing the resilience of health and social care systems, society and the economy, and the model of living and working together in Europe.
Even before taking over the presidency, Germany, together with France, launched a comprehensive EU recovery plan during and after the pandemic to be implemented in a sustainable, equal, solidarity and fair manner in all member states.
In practice, it will not be so simple, assuming that we have already seen the emergence of the phenomenon of pandemic nationalism, also in the country of the Presidency.
Regardless, the German presidency led the European Council to adopt a new tool called the Next Generation EU, which was built into an effective, modern and long-term rescue plan.
There is no turning back
Next Generation EU with financial firepower of 750 billion euros will have a significant impact on the future of the EU, as it means the ‘communalisation’ of EU financial obligations towards a supranational financial and fiscal union. In the present situation, however, there is no turning back.
Only centralised mechanisms at the level of Brussels – according to the German government (and to a lesser extent the Federal Constitutional Court) – can increase the resilience of societies, states and the entire European Union with regard to the pandemic turbulence.
Added to this are the realisation and implementation of the European Green Deal, digital transformation and rebuilding the EU’s position in the world. Germany also does not forget about the Union perceived as a true community of values, emphasising the rule of law, which is beginning to be violated repeatedly.
In this context, a question has recently arisen: how will the German presidency steer through the European Council and the Council of the EU the plan proposed by the European Commission – making the payment of EU funds conditional on the observance of the rule of law by the member states?
It is certain that during its presidency, Germany will engage in the creation of the European Health Union, thus undertaking a discussion on the issue of strengthening the EU’s competences – because today it is only a complementary competence of the EU.
It is also assumed that Germany will support the intensive implementation of the SURE instrument (90 billion euros!), which will protect employees and enterprises from external shocks.
The same applies to the legislative proposal of the European Commission to help member states introduce a minimum wage framework.
Strengthening four freedoms in the digital age
In the context of what will happen in the EU after 2020, it will also be important for the Germany presidency to strengthen the internal market and adapt it to the digital age.
This will be about the (hopefully post-pandemic) restoration and strengthening of the four freedoms that make up the true bloodstream of the EU’s social market economy.
The basis for this process must be a fully functioning Schengen area – a zone of continued free movement of people in Europe. As we know, the pandemic still poses a huge threat to the Schengen system.
The presidency must join the European Commission’s plans to implement a 5G network quickly, despite the fact that this network system increases people’s concerns. Added to this is a stronger presence of industry and technology in strategic sectors, including artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, supercomputers and cloud computing.
An extremely important environmental goal for Germany is the EU’s strategy to become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. The presidency is convincing other countries that it is impossible to wait and that one should not invest in innovation and research, transform the EU economy and modernise industrial policy. The answer to this is the European Green Deal mentioned above.
For this reason, according to the Germans, the CO2 emissions trading system (ETS) must change. The Presidency also supports the position of the European Commission, for which it will be necessary to gradually reduce the free ETS allowances granted to airlines, similarly to road traffic and construction. A cross-border carbon tax is planned. The Just Transition Fund also becomes important in this context.
Creating an ever closer union
Let us return once again to the content of Chancellor Merkel’s speech, in July this year at the European Parliament while inaugurating the presidency, called for resolutely to face the crisis that has hit Europe and the world. The presidency’s motto, which she presented then, speaks for itself: “Together for Europe’s recovery”.
After all, this is a message not only for the entire Union but also for the world. Only jointly and in solidarity will it be possible to achieve the goal of the New Generation European Union.
For this reason, the German presidency should today expose the message contained in the preamble to the EU Treaty, which in German is: der Schaffung einer immer engeren Union der Völker Europas (“the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe “).
To achieve this goal, the European Union should constitute a compact whole. Let it be a work that boasts a variety of contrasting but harmonious sounds that form a single melodic line, absorbed by the human ear. The practice of integration, and especially its successive crises, mean that today we are no longer dealing with a well-composed and rhythmic system.
The European Union would very much like to be an orderly world of complete and multidimensional music, using many trends, from classical to modern jazz. For now, there are more falsely played and unrecognisable notes in this difficult task.
We are aware that European integration is still in statu nascendi. Its composition is in the process of being created. However, composers, conductors and musicians change too often; for instance, the Franco-German leadership in the EU has weakened and not to mention a dwindling audience (e.g. Brexit).
The criterion of truth, in this case, will be the consequences of the actions of the EU (and of its presidency) during and after the pandemic. For this reason, it is necessary to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the Union in meeting the needs of societies and in resolving problems and conflicts that appear in the practice of integration.
Germany does not realise that the end time is approaching: over-regulation and ‘overload’ of the system and thus a deficit of efficiency and transparency; the lack of accountability for liability, scattered between countries and the EU; the problem of real European political leadership and authorities (here, too, Germany has ‘a lesson to learn’ ahead of itself); the breaching the fundamental constitutional principles and values of the EU.
It is time to deal with the ‘withdrawal of legitimacy’ in the EU and the threat to the principle of permissive consensus, which is based on the assumption of constant (unchanging) tolerance and the approval of the citizens of the member states for the actions and consequences of European integration.
During the conference on the future of the EU, the German presidency must engage in a debate on the EU’s role as both a builder, a gardener and a night watchman.
It will not be an easy task, as Europe is divided into those who advise it to accelerate federation and those who believe that in the situation of the emerging post-pandemic vacuum it is necessary to return to the idea of the nation-state. The ‘Third Way’ dream, in the form of a finalité politique acceptable to everyone, is not to be seen anywhere.
Europe needs to be even more visible
The first stage of changes must be new forms of European communication and agreements, going beyond the existing patterns of institutional, intergovernmental and inter-party arrangements.
National actors (national parliaments, but also local governments, including professional ones), non-governmental organisations and all (including informal) social movements can play an important role here. Institutions such as the Committee of the Regions and the Economic and Social Committee, with their very limited powers, composition and forms of action at the moment, do not exist anymore.
The condition for the success of this scenario must be still open borders resulting from the rules of the internal market and the Schengen acquis. Europe needs to be even more visible in health, science, education, sport, culture and tourism.
The second stage is the need to increase innovation, creativity, vision, strategic thinking, but also the art of consistent and effective action. Identification of the interests of states and the European Union cannot take place in the privacy of political and diplomatic offices. A new generation must come to power – not elitist, but more egalitarian.
I do not think we need to convince anyone today that the axiology of European integration is an element of survival, breaking with nihilism and continuing the work of bringing peoples closer together. The European Union cannot afford an axiological catastrophe – it is extremely important for both Germans and Poles. It must return to its founding values.
The European common good could today be a combination of the collective (political and economic) interest of the actors of European integration with common values, especially such as unity, equality, freedom, solidarity, justice and security.
At the level of the member states and EU institutions, they come down to solidarity and simultaneous fulfilment of the undertaken obligations, providing assistance and joint representation of one’s own interests.
It should be repeated over and over again that the basis for European integration is the rule of law, universalism and the indivisibility of human rights and fundamental freedoms and freedoms, the principle of human dignity and respect for the rules adopted by them contained both in the acquis communautaire and the acquis politique.
The pursuit of interests, money, strength and advantage are not everything. The European Union built on values will not create new borders and dividing lines. It will not close or isolate but will become a bridge for the flow of people, the exchange of all kinds of goods and permanent dialogue and communication – thus contributing to the elimination of sources of potential conflict and crisis.
Only cultivating common values will allow states and citizens to be themselves and to draw on their experiences and achievements at the same time.
A Polish version of this article is available on Res Publica Nowa.