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A Challenge for the German Left



Judith Dellheim,

Europagebäude in Brüssel: Sitz des Rates der Europäischen Union
Seat of the Council of the European Union: the European building in Brussels CC BY-SA 4.0, Samynandpartners, via Wikimedia Commons

We need only think back to Germany’s presidency of the European Union Council in 1999, under which the military aspect of the EU was massively expanded, or in 2007, when the EU Constitutional Treaty was at stake, to see that the title of this article is no empty phrase. The following will thus firstly give a brief general idea of how the presidency of the Council of the EU works, before outlining the current state of the discussion around Germany’s incumbency. Finally, some suggestions for the German left in this regard will be offered.

Judith Dellheim works on solidarity economies at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s Institute for Critical Social Analysis. Translated by Sam Langer and Marty Hiatt for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

The Rules of the Game

On 1 July 2020, it will be Germany’s turn to hold the presidency of the EU Council for six months. Previously, in the context of NATO’s Defender exercises, Germany was responsible for mobilizing powerful military resources and threatening Russia. From 1 July, the Federal Republic will jointly form a “presidency trio” with Portugal and Slovenia; Portugal will take over from the Presidency from Germany, and then pass it on to Slovenia. The three countries will collectively formulate the goals and programme for the Council’s work over the year and a half of their incumbency. As part of this, each country also works out a concrete six-month program for its own EU presidency. The three most important tasks of Council presidency are:

  • to take charge of preparing, moderating, and evaluating the meetings of the Council of the European Union and those of the approximately 200 working groups and committees (in these, member states’ respective specialist ministers meet to discuss various topics. The specialist ministers decide on the European Commission’s draft laws. The Council of Ministers and the European Parliament must approve the proposals in order for them to become law);
  • to represent the member states vis-à-vis the other institutions of the EU, primarily the European Commission and the European Parliament;
  • to represent the EU at an international level together with the European Commission, e.g. at proceedings of the United Nations.

Like every other country to hold the presidency of the EU Council, Germany will carry a logo for the duration of its incumbency. 161 million euros have been earmarked from the federal budget for Germany’s presidency, but no sponsorship is planned.

The Current Debate over the Priorities and Content of a German EU Council Presidency

As of 25 January 2020, the German government had still not submitted a draft of its programme. The Greens and Die Linke criticized this in the Bundestag. During a meeting in October 2019, the heads of the federal states had already agreed on their “concerns … regarding the details of Germany’s presidency of the EU Council in 2020”, and declared: “The citizens require a clear orientation as to the direction in which the EU ought to develop in future ... The federal states therefore support the proposal for a conference on the future of Europe, in which citizens’ views will be listened to.”

The heads of the federal states argue for “respecting their competences and further strengthening European regional and local authorities’ opportunities for participation and information exchange. This pertains to the deepening of political dialogue, as well as the involvement of the Committee of the Regions, and strengthening the status of national and regional delegations in Brussels.” Furthermore, “extended impact assessments on regional, territorial and cross-border implications” would assist the work of national and regional parliaments.

The states request that the Federal Government “take account of regional dimensions of structural change, and that particular importance be attached to strengthening the cohesion of the EU” in its programme for the presidency. Since a future-compliant industrial policy would continue to be based on small- and medium-sized enterprises, the latter should be newly defined. Questions arise, however, about the relationship envisaged between subsidiarity and solidarity on the one hand, and on the other about the demand “to ensure the international competitiveness of energy-intensive and foreign trade-dependent economic sectors. The future of mobility must be approached with an open mind towards technology.”

How does this fit together with a drastic reduction of CO2 emissions? The focus by these “provincial lords” on internal security is ambivalent. They primarily seem to understand this in terms of fighting criminality among non-German nationals; refugees and migration are at least tendentiously linked with lawbreaking. Innovative thinking, on the other hand, would point towards cross-border, transnational, and interregional cooperation. “The states welcome the fact that a new EU Charter on Sustainable European Cities (the Leipzig Charter 2.0) is to be adopted during the German EU Council presidency.” They want to be involved in the drafting process.

They also call on the Federal Government to “make the fight against antisemitism a priority of its presidency of the EU Council. At the EU level, Germany should purposefully push ahead with the action plan against disinformation and for the promotion of European networking among actors in the areas of media education and children’s media, including with regard to digital radicalization. In addition, the Federal Government should encourage member states to take advantage of the opportunities for support through European funds and programmes, particularly through the Creative Europe programme, most importantly for the purpose of film and media education.” Here, too, the states want to play a meaningful role.

As regards the UN climate negotiations and the World Biodiversity Conference, they expect the Federal Government to engage in a results-oriented way, although this is also understood in economic terms. They thereby overlook the fact that, within the currently dominant economic and social structures, “sustainable economic growth and prosperity” are impossible to achieve with solidarity and justice and in a socially and economically sustainable fashion.

Finally, the states request that the Federal Government “self-confidently, and with appropriate financial outlay, promote the acquisition and use of the German language throughout European institutions.” Around the same time, Michael Clauß, the Federal Republic’s permanent representative to the EU, commented on the priorities for the forthcoming presidency. He began by mentioning the further development of “European–British relations”, the negotiation of a free trade agreement, as well as foreign policy and security cooperation. Should negotiations over the multiannual financial framework continue until 1 July, they too would be a top priority. In particular, he said, the extent of the budget, the linking of the Cohesion Fund to rule of law criteria, the use of the money for climate protection, and questions about the future of the EU would all be up for discussion.

The latter include climate, artificial intelligence, migration, and the EU’s role in Europe and the world. Since accession negotiations with Northern Macedonia and Albania were not opened, he thinks questions need to be raised as to the EU’s capacity for international action and its neighbourhood policy. Because China has become a leading global economic power, a new European industrial policy and the protection of key technologies will play an increasingly important role. In view of the USA’s protectionist stance, he calls on the EU to show “sanction resilience”. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas takes the same view, announcing an EU–China summit for September, at which he says the EU needs to present a united front. “The EU must also act faster and more effectively in the crises in our neighbourhood—in Syria, Libya or the Sahel region. During our presidency we want to establish a centre of competence for civil crisis management that will strengthen Europe’s role as a force for peace. And we want to make progress towards establishing a common headquarters for all EU Common Security and Defence Policy operations. Europe must take more responsibility for its own security ... A strong Europe as part of a strong NATO—that is our goal.”

This sounds like anything but a peace policy. The military dimension will also affect industrial policy. “We want a European industrial policy appropriate to a world of global competitive struggle. The discussion of 5G network expansion shows how necessary this is ... I am more comfortable with betting on European solutions ...” On 17 January in the Bundestag, the Minister of State for Europe, Michael Roth, made a similar declaration regarding the presidency: “... a strong, sovereign, and solidary Europe is in Germany’s interest ... ” Regarding the proposal to investigate EU member states’ adherence to rule of law, Roth suggests the following criteria: “... independence of the judiciary, and freedom and diversity of the media”. Such criteria should unite the EU; likewise, a “common framework for minimum wage regulations ... basic social security ... unemployment reinsurance, the fight against tax dumping ... we want social standards to be raised everywhere in the European Union ... The European Union must show that it is possible to reconcile the claims of labour and environmental conservation.” But reaching consensus in the EU is complicated, especially in foreign policy, and above with respect to China. Roth claims that “a common understanding of the major crises” is needed, as well as “of what we are able to actively contribute to global peace, stability, security, and human rights.”

The Bundestag debate on the EU Presidency stemmed from a motion made by the Greens’ parliamentary group, demanding that the German presidency of the Council function to transmit the following message: “Europe is now going to tackle the big issues, above all protection of the climate. But not only that: Europe must assert itself more strongly as a shaping player in the geostrategic power struggle between the USA and China. It must take an approach to digitization and artificial intelligence that is based on its own values; it must complete the digital single market, and thus preserve its technological sovereignty. It must endure as a continent that is innovative and creative, committed to equality of opportunity, and to research. It must develop an industrial strategy that counters the protectionism of the major powers with the European concept of an efficient, ecological multilateralism based on social values. And Europe must do its homework: complete the banking union, crisis-proof the Eurozone, strengthen the euro, and finally develop a European social policy worthy of the name. Here Germany must prove that as the richest country in the Union, it is willing to show more solidarity within Europe.”

The Greens obviously wish to reconcile the problems of society, ecology, and solidarity with global competitiveness—which is impossible. They say the EU must “take the lead on global climate protection” and biodiversity protection. They want the Common Agricultural Policy to be designed in such a way “that EU payments will help to finance agricultural transition”. They link climate protection to “digitalization as the second major challenge for the Council presidency”. This is mentioned in the context of “socio-ecological transformation” and “European digital sovereignty”. Here too there is a need for clarification and discussion, likewise regarding the “celebration” of the tenth anniversary of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly true that “a new attempt is needed to combat racism, discrimination, antisemitism, and antiziganism … [Germany’s] Council presidency offers the opportunity to expand and strengthen EU procedures and instruments relating to the rule of law”.

During its presidency of the Council, Germany will function as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council and the UN Human Rights Council, which calls for exceptional dedication. This also applies to the “reform of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) towards providing a strong and unified refugee protection policy”, an issue which must be tackled during Germany’s tenure as president “with all seriousness and vigour”. The broad endorsement of the arrogant, geographically incorrect equation of “EU” and “Europe” is striking. The manifest determination regarding climate and biodiversity policy is absent when it comes to the fight against poverty, social exclusion, and social and global divisions. The statements on industrial policy are strongly oriented towards “globalization gains” and the proposals on sustainable investment promote neither social sustainability nor protection against financial crises. The proposals on the defence and development of democratic rights, and on asylum, human rights, and peace policy exhibit large intersections with left-wing positions—as well as significant lacunae. Russia and Ukraine are not mentioned in the submission, nor are Israel and Palestine, nor the Middle East. NATO and Permanent Structured Cooperation are also absent; there is no mention of a common foreign or security policy. But there is also no Conference on the Future of Europe.

Summary in Conclusion

In order to distinguish their capabilities in organization, cooperation, and the formation of alliances in a politically effective manner, those in Germany, the EU, and Europe who are in favour of a politics of emancipation and solidarity should make at least three left-wing initiatives into matters of common interest: the protest against Defender 2020, the “climate and ecological protests”, and the debate on the Conference on the Future of Europe project. Protest against NATO’s military exercises should be combined with a radical criticism of plans to increase “Europe's capacity to act”, because the German government aims to further militarize the EU during its Council presidency. Obviously, democratic campaigns around the UN negotiations on climate and biodiversity should be supported. But these must occur at all levels—starting with the local and regional—and put forward alternative forms of socio-ecological development.

The demands and proposals of the “provincial lords” and the Leipzig Charter 2.0 project offer opportunities for action in this connection. If they are not used by the left, neo-liberals and right-wing extremists will expand their space and influence. This also applies to the Conference on the Future of Europe, where Attac Austria, the Transnational Institute, and Corporate Europe Observatory have already taken the initiative. Ultimately, von der Leyen wants a different “Future of Europe” than the emancipatory-solidary actors do, who must certainly be interested in action programmes against antisemitism and media manipulation. In any case, these brief remarks once again make clear the importance of a fundamental critique of the capitalist mode of production and of bourgeois society; the papers and official submissions summarized here do not even attempt to name the real problems and their causes.