The days are galloping by fast, with June quickly coming to an end, and this July 1 will mark the beginning of the European Union Council Presidency of Germany. While the EU Presidency is not the “sexiest” subject, and while the terms pass from one member state to the other rather uneventfully and silently, this time it is Germany, the biggest EU member, taking over. And this presidency will also be the debut of the “post-corona Angela Merkel.” After all, Chancellor Merkel and Germany have become synonymous, and if Germany is referred to as one of the most powerful countries in the world, this is not only because of its solid social, political and economic indicators. In a time of “haywire” leadership, where erratic, powerful leaders try to guarantee their next term through their every policy move, Merkel has turned out to be one unique example of “positive strong leadership.” This is why Merkel is frequently referred to as the de facto leader of the European Union. And starting in July, she will literally be at the helm of the European Union.
In various ways, the coronavirus pandemic crisis has turned out to be a lucky turn for Angela Merkel: her decisive and “calm but in control” style of leadership proved to be effective and she regained all the popularity ratings she had shed the past few years.
Merkel, Germany, and the EU have a lot on their plates, and some of their targets and interests coincide, while others do not. If it were not for the coronavirus pandemic, their respective agendas would have the common denominators of the climate crisis, the “Brexit saga,” the refugee/migrant crisis and the EU budget conundrum. But now, Germany’s EU Council Presidency will have to be a truly “signature” turning point. Germany and Merkel will have to put their “Hancock” on the future of Europe. The coronavirus crisis is here to stay with its economic, social and hence political impacts and implications. While the world may seem to proceed towards “business as usual,” who other than Germany, the greatest master of “Zukunftsplanung” (future planning), to take precautions and plan ahead.
With the coronavirus crisis, the EU retreated into its individual caves of “national issues first.” In a way, this is reminiscent of the times preceding Germany’s EU Council Presidency: back then, the “EU Constitution Crisis” was taking its toll, and Germany marched onwards with an agreement on a reform of the treaty after the failure of the constitutional treaty process. Germany’s efforts bore fruit in the form of the Lisbon Treaty, which went into effect in 2009.
Back in 2007, while the problems were far more minuscule and far less existential, Merkel herself was a fresh Chancellor, having barely completed her first year in power. Thirteen years on, she is much more experienced and highly seasoned, moving past many domestic and international crises. While our personal vulnerabilities as humans have been revealed through the coronavirus, the EU itself did not turn out to be as resilient as expected. Now, just as Germany’s term for the Presidency looms over the horizon, the fundamental building blocks of the EU, such as open borders, are at stake. Just as the coronavirus pandemic was unfolding back in March, EU countries went on their individual paths and adopted uncoordinated restrictions. Strict border controls blew the EU’s internal market back to “pre-Schengen times,” before the Agreement took effect in 1995. Of course, it is not just the Schengen Agreement and the reality of a borderless EU that is at stake: the very existence of EU cohesion and unity is under threat.
The EU has to decide what the “Union” is really about and embark on a new journey of soul searching in the post-Brexit and post-Corona times. And by and large, Merkel will be setting the tone. However, not only does she have to coordinate the EU member states, but she also has to manage Germany’s domestic political scene, as her term in politics will approach its end for good in 2021. She has declared at various points that she will not seek another post beyond the Chancellorship — neither in Europe nor in the broader international scene.
Ankara has been readying for Germany’s EU Presidency in its own way. The first thing on Ankara’s agenda is brokering and concluding a new migrant agreement with the EU, and doing so by gnawing away some serious concessions. We may translate this as “money talks,” but Ankara wants more than lucrative financial packages for taking care of the refugee issue — such as visa-free travel to the Schengen countries. However, at a time when Europe’s own open borders are in jeopardy, can Merkel, Germany or the EU itself deliver such a promise? Let alone visa-free travel, can the EU even come up with a “single, unified Turkey policy” at a time when its own unity is at stake?
In the coming days, I will continue to explore Germany's EU Presidency vis-à-vis Turkey through a series of articles.