Council Presidency in the Great Power Rivalry

German Presidency of EU-Council begins. Goal: economic and political independence from China and the USA.

BERLIN/BRUSSELS (Own report) - With its EU-Council Presidency, which begins today, the German government seeks "to set in motion unprecedented changes" in the European Union, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas announced. Not only should the EU countries' economies - which are experiencing an unprecedented slump, due to the Covid-19 pandemic - be reinvigorated, it is also crucial "to consolidate the union permanently," Maas declared. Berlin is thus reacting to the fact that single-handed national initiatives to combat the pandemic - particularly those of Germany - have severely damaged the EU's reputation within the populations. According to a recent survey, 50 percent of respondents in Spain declared that their view of the EU had deteriorated, in Italy, it was even 58 percent. The German government is also pushing to strengthen the EU's "sovereignty" and to reduce its dependency not only on China, but also on the USA: In the global great power rivalry, Europe must position itself as a "united entity," Maas demands.

The EU's Permanent Crisis

Germany is assuming the presidency of the EU-Council under, what experts consider to be extremely difficult conditions. On the one hand, according to a recent analysis of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin, the EU has been in a "crisis mode" for years: The global financial crisis in 2008 was succeeded by the euro crisis in 2010, the "refugee crisis" in 2015, and most recently the "corona crisis" - "a succession of shock waves that have prevented a lasting stabilization and reinvigoration of the EU."[1] And now the EU is confronting a "pandemic devastation," the SWP continues. Apart from the pandemic's dramatic social and economic consequences, which must be overcome, the German government must expect that during its Council presidency, "at least at the beginning ... only 30 percent of the regular work of the Council can take place;" during the Croatian presidency, which had ended yesterday "many legislative dossiers were not finalized," due to the crisis. Thirdly, it must be taken into account that the escalation of the global power struggles creates additional problems for the EU, which would further complicate the German Council presidency's work.

Bad Atmosphere

Last but not least, particularly in the pandemic's early phase, various single-handed national initiatives, including Germany's in particular ( reported [2]) have turned some EU member countries' populations against Germany and the EU. "This continues to have an effect," the SWP concedes.[3] A recent survey, commissioned by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and conducted in nine EU countries, confirms that the perception of the EU has significantly deteriorated within the populations. To the question about "who the most helpful ally of their country was during the crisis," a relative majority responded "no one."[4] Only in Poland, the EU placed second with 17 percent. In all other countries the EU was named second, following the WHO, with merely single-digit percentages; in Italy only fourth place with 4 percent (China was most frequently mentioned with 25 percent). The proportion of those whose perception of the EU has deteriorated during the Covid 19 pandemic varies between 25 percent (Sweden) and 58 percent (Italy), with a particularly high figure (50 percent) in Spain, which had previously been considered very EU loyal.

"Consolidate the Union"

In light of southern Europe's growing rejection of the EU - in Italy, a relative majority recently spoke out in favor of withdrawing from the union [5] - as well as the fact that the Corona crisis has affected the German industry's main sales markets in southern and western Europe,[6] Berlin sees it as inevitable that certain concessions must be made, particularly to Italy and Spain, to implement the €750 billion EU Recovery Fund. Therefore, for the first time, the German government has agreed to the Union's - one-time only - borrowing plan for the Recovery Fund and the partial allocation of the funds as grants. ( reported.[7]) The German government has additionally announced that economic recovery will have priority during its presidency. Therefore, as initial steps, the Recovery Fund must be passed and agreement reached on the next EU budget for the years 2021 - 2027. To revive the popular approval for the Union, Brussels is not only to finance the salaries of short-time employees, but also introduce a minimum wage, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas announced Monday in a speech to the ECFR. We must "consolidate the union permanently."[8] Simultaneously, with the measures to reinforce the economy, certain fields, such as "digital innovation," should be particularly promoted, Maas declared. These are imperative sectors for having global influence in the future.

"Even Without the US in the Future"

During its presidency, subsequent to its efforts to reinforce the economy, the German government will also seek to maximize the EU's clout in global policymaking. Berlin explicitly aims to achieve this through "European sovereignty" - independence in relationship to the other powers, above all China and the USA. In his speech to the ECFR on Monday, Foreign Minister Maas called for "an unsparing analysis of our strategic dependencies, be they technological, security-, trade- or monetary-related."[9] The EU should reduce its dependency on China, for example, not only for the supply of medicines, but also in 5G digitalization. At the same time, we will have to "think about how to better contain the conflicts in Europe’s vicinity, even without the US." In an earlier interview, Mass said that the EU "has to succeed in positioning Europe as a united entity in the global great-power rivalry between the United States, China and Russia." "Only by standing united as Europeans," Maas maintains, "do we have a chance of holding our own in that environment. Otherwise we will become the plaything of others."[10]

Military and Resilience

The fact that Berlin also intends to continue to promote the militarization of the EU can be seen in the "trio program," jointly formulated by the German, Portuguese, and Slovenian governments - who successively assume the EU presidency next year. In the program, one reads that, in the future, "all aspects of the Common Security and Defense Policy" will be enhanced. This pertains not only to a "strategic dialogue" and a strengthening of the arms industry within the EU, but also the "further development of and coherence among the defense initiatives" of the Union.[11] An important factor is also the cooperation with NATO, which will include military mobility, cyber security and defense, development of capabilities, hybrid threats, capacity building. Not to be forgotten is the "military assistance to civilian authorities and measures to enhance resilience/civil preparedness." "Resilience" refers to the society's capacity to resist, for example, in face of natural catastrophes and pandemics, but also in case of an escalation of international conflicts - including warfare.


Please note also our video column The EU - a "Union of Values?"


[1] Eckhard Lübkemeier, Nicolai von Ondarza: Eine Korona-Präsidentschaft in Corona-Zeiten? SWP-Aktuell Nr. 52. Berlin, Juni 2020.

[2] See also EU Solidarity (II) and Permanent Damage.

[3] Eckhard Lübkemeier, Nicolai von Ondarza: Eine Korona-Präsidentschaft in Corona-Zeiten? SWP-Aktuell Nr. 52. Berlin, Juni 2020.

[4] Susi Dennison, Pawel Zerka: Together in Trauma: Europeans and the World After Covid-19. ECFR Policy Brief. June 2020.

[5] See also Zur Schadensbegrenzung nach Rom.

[6] Last year, among Germany's largest trading partners France ranked second, Italy fifth and Spain twelfth.

[7] See also The Cost of Integration.

[8], [9] Rede des Bundesministers des Auswärtigen Heiko Maas beim Digitalen Jahrestreffen des Rates des "European Council for Foreign Relations" (ECFR). 29.06.2020.

[10] "Europa hat viel dazugelernt". 29.06.2020.

[11] Die Strategische Agenda voranbringen. Achtzehnmonatsprogramm des Rates (1. Juli 2020 - 31. Dezember 2021). Brüssel, 9. Juni 2020.