In the context of the Covid-19 crisis, the German Presidency of the Council of the European Union faces major challenges. Considering that the conditions and circumstances will constantly change, and that the EU will face increasing uncertainty and unpredictability, we need to reflect on how it should respond to vital challenges in the long term.
On 1 July 2020, Germany took over the rotating Presidency of the Council of the European Union. Given the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, the German EU Presidency faces major challenges. Considering that the conditions and circumstances will constantly change, and that the EU will face increasing uncertainty and unpredictability, we need to reflect on how it should respond to vital challenges in the long term. Additionally, the pandemic has already led to severe economic, social and political distress in the most vulnerable EU Member States and in our neighbourhood, too. As the crisis will most probably deepen in the coming years, it is essential for Member States to work together in solidarity and find common solutions, while also providing decisive aid and support outside of the EU.
A major task of the German EU Council Presidency are the negotiations on the 2021–27 EU budget (Multiannual Financial Framework, or MFF) and the new recovery instrument ‘Next Generation EU’. In this context, the German government has to act as an honest broker. However, at the same time, it needs to show that it is prepared for conflict, especially when it comes to ambitious targets concerning democracy, the rule of law and climate action.
Hereinafter, the Heinrich Böll Foundation presents key ideas on the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, the opportunities of the European Green Deal, the future of the European project and Europe’s role in the world. These ideas stem from 20 conversations with Green decision-makers and civil society actors, in the frame of our dossier Green Ideas for the Future of Europe.
1. European responses to the current crisis – solidarity and transformation now!
- It is vital to agree upon a strong European response to the current crisis. This response must be based on the principle of solidarity and foster a sustainable transformation of our economies and societies.
- The European Commission’s proposed recovery plan is a very important step in the right direction. The fact that the EU heads of state and government agreed on a joint EU borrowing scheme in July 2020 is a historical step. However, the negotiations between EU leaders led to unacceptable budget cuts in the new MFF, especially in areas that are crucial for our future, such as climate action, healthcare, as well as research and innovation. It will be important in the upcoming months to fight for a more ambitious MFF.
- Through a proactive monetary policy, the European Central Bank (ECB) has averted a worse outcome. Although this has been crucial to avoid a financial crash, it is problematic that the ECB props up a financial system that was already flawed and in need of in-depth reform. We need a discussion about the future of EU monetary and fiscal policy and on the mandate of the ECB.
2. Align all policies and investments with the objectives of the European Green Deal and make it the engine of the recovery!
- In the face of the climate emergency, the EU must take climate action now. Instead of focusing on a less contested climate neutrality goal for 2050, it is of utmost importance to wrap up negotiations on the EU Climate Law by the end of 2020 and increase the EU’s climate targets for 2030 to a 65% reduction in emissions, to match the Paris Climate Agreement.
- The Biodiversity and Farm-to-Fork Strategies deserve just as much attention. Climate targets are out of reach without progress on these areas. Given the large share of the Common Agricultural Policy in the EU budget, it is crucial to use these large sums better and promote a shift away from resource allocation according to farm size to rewarding ecosystem services and investing in more regional structures to increase environmental, social and economic resilience. The EU budget must better account for these priorities, with a minimum spending target for biodiversity-related expenditures. The Council Conclusions on the next MFF and the Recovery Instrument mention a climate-spending target, but no equivalent for biodiversity.
- Investments in the aftermath of the crisis need to cater to sectors with benefits for both the environment and job markets, such as circular economy, agro-ecological farming, the cycling industry and public transport. Addressing the transport sector is key to tackle the climate crisis. Any further subsidies in fossil fuel infrastructure bare the risk of dangerous and uneconomical lock-in.
- Own EU resources must focus on mechanisms that help achieve the European Green Deal objectives: for example, tackling non-recycled plastic waste, all while ensuring that equity, affordability and fairness are part of any considerations.
- On a similar token, money from the Just Transition Fund ought to reflect the respective Member States’ climate ambitions.
- Gender impact assessments for any money spent in the framework of the MFF and the Recovery Fund must be mandatory, to make sure that all genders benefit equally.
- The attention that the European Commission devotes to digitalisation, listed as a priority, must also foster the European Green Deal objectives, by using digitalisation to coordinate and strengthen sector-coupling and boosting the decarbonisation of industry, transport, energy and agriculture among other sectors.
3. Strengthen the EU of fundamental rights, democracy and justice: binding standards for the rule of law and active citizenship!
- The Covid-19 crisis has revealed how quickly democratic systems can become tenuous. We must therefore actively defend the independence of the judiciary, freedom of the media and civil society as well as the fundamental rights of citizens in the EU.
- The introduction of more effective levers to tackle violations of the rule of law and fundamental rights is necessary to address democratic backsliding.
- It is unacceptable that the proposal of a rule of law mechanism by the European Commission was watered down in the July 2020 European Council conclusions, due to the pressure of the Polish and Hungarian governments. It will be crucial to fight for embedding an effective rule of law mechanism in the MFF during the upcoming months.
- The negotiations on future EU-UK relations must be concluded by the end of 2020. Therefore, it is ever more important that the EU speaks up for fundamental European principles and shared laws in order to achieve a comprehensive deal. We must, however, be prepared for all possible scenarios.
- The EU must help strengthening democratic forces in its direct neighbourhood and uphold the commitment for the EU enlargement process with the integration of the Western Balkans – a key issue of its common foreign and security policy.
- In the digital arena, the EU must stand up for effective legal redress and transparency on digital platforms to address the challenge of illegal content online. Algorithmic recommendation systems must be kept in check to avoid the amplification of illegal content and disinformation on social networks. It is of utmost importance to have clear criteria on the legality of artificial intelligence, including democratic oversight, to prevent fundamental rights abuse.
- We need a debate on the future of the EU – now more than ever. The Conference on the Future of Europe is the ideal forum to make the citizen’s wish of more Europe a reality. We should use the momentum and start the dialogue now.
4. Strengthen the EU’s role as a democratic, value-based political actor in the world!
- In times of a changing world order, it is vital that the EU uses its weight in policy areas such as environmental and digital policies to set standards in multilateral forums.
- In the future EU-China relations, the EU must define comprehensive and coherent red lines for its cooperation with China. Furthermore, Germany should Europeanise its China policy by strengthening cooperation with other EU Member States and harmonise its approaches with theirs.
- With regard to the negotiations of the Post-Cotonou Agreement and the Comprehensive EU-Africa Strategy, we urge the German Council Presidency to advocate for an equal partnership between the EU and Africa.
- The EU migration policy crisis has shown that more efforts have to be undertaken to create a robust asylum system, which prioritises human dignity and assures good management of immigration movements within the framework of the planned reform of the European asylum and migration policies. This includes supporting European regions, cities, local authorities and civil society in engaging in Search and Rescue (SAR) and taking responsibility for the relocation of refugees inside the European Union and from its neighbouring countries.
- The EU has to play an important role in the Middle East. A comprehensive and coherent political strategy towards the countries in the region is needed, which includes questions of human and other fundamental rights. The EU must use its diplomatic and political clout and its reputation as a ‘neutral’ actor in order to mediate in cases of conflict in the region.
- With several trade agreements being currently negotiated, the EU has to show a strong commitment to ensure that EU trade policy does not constitute a hindrance to climate and environmental protection. In this context, the expected draft for a supply chain law must include the responsibility of companies to ensure the compliances with environmental laws and human rights.
- Supporting democracy and human rights ultimately also contributes to the post-pandemic recovery. Civil society plays a crucial role for democratic systems, and even more so in systems in which democratic rights and freedoms are not fully developed or are under attack. This role must be fostered and promoted by keeping up the support of civic actors and emphasising the human rights dimension in EU external action.
Read all the conversations on the occasion of Germany's EU Council Presidency 2020.