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Rarely has an EU Council Presidency faced such challenges: Corona recession and a reconstruction package, marathon negotiations on the next EU financial framework, an unresolved Brexit, deadlocked talks on a new intra-European key to the distribution of refugees, the struggle for a rule-of-law mechanism in the EU, the search for new impulses for the European integration process through the Conference on the Future of Europe – and all this in the face of its increasingly authoritarian and provocative neighbour Russia and the new global hegemon China. If, in such a situation, even the man in the White House cannot or does not want to understand how vital transatlantic relations are for both partners, then it has to become clear that Germany must resolutely accept its leading role in the EU and move from being an administrator to a constructive developer.
The EU must not lose itself in introverted self-occupation, but must now also look outward and forward, in spite of the necessary housekeeping. The aim must be a more efficient and modern EU and not merely the restoration of the “status quo ante corona”. This requires courage and – yes – a courageous dose of Germany’s will to lead the EU as a whole. However, this must be done without falling into German know-it-all or dominance! In short: We need the classic strengths of liberal European policy: active organisation from the centre of Europe, with an open ear also and especially for the concerns of medium-sized and small EU partners.
The EU’s new multiannual financial framework for the years 2021 – 2027 and the associated reconstruction plan Next Generation EU actually offer exactly this opportunity. However, for this to happen, the EU’s core budget would need to be more precise, with fewer false incentives, sunset clauses and, above all, stronger conditionalities in regional and structural funding. The common agricultural policy must not impose ever-increasing bureaucratic burdens on farmers and must not seal off the European market from agricultural products from developing countries. Then – and only then – will the new EU budget have the necessary scope to finally invest more in digitalisation, education, internal and external security, research, climate protection, trans-European networks, in short: in competitiveness in the 21st century.
In general, the EU should focus on its classic strengths, such as a strong and open internal market, free trade agreements and lower customs duties, in order to boost the economy. The European internal market as a growth engine must be revitalised. Those areas of the economy where differing national standards prevent full integration must continually be developed r. The conclusion of further free trade agreements would increase Europe’s trading power and counteract protectionism. Bureaucratic obstacles that promote protectionist interests, for example those making postings in the internal market more difficult, should be consistently dismantled right now!
The Conference on the Future of Europe is also essential for an improved and modernised EU. Due to the pandemic, the start of the conference had to be postponed. This is a pity, as the conference offers interested EU citizens the opportunity to have an open and inclusive debate on the European Union and its further development with the long-term goal of a decentralised European federal state. Federal state – a term to which the FDP has committed itself in its basic programme – is just as clear in its certain rejection of a centralised superstate as in its commitment to the finality and irreversibility of the gradual convergence of the European nation states in those areas where common statehood makes the self-assertion of Europeans possible. The German Council Presidency must therefore advocate for a concrete starting date for the Future Conference so that the so important discussion on the continuation of the integration process is not talked out of hand again.
The EU must also realign its external impact: away from reacting to crises and towards global creative power. Whether in its relations with China or Russia, whether with regard to the USA, which is preoccupied with itself, or in view of its troubled neighbourhood in North Africa and the Middle East: the EU needs strong European institutions, strategic autonomy and the ability to act militarily in the form of jointly deployable armed forces. It is high time to create a nucleus for a European army, albeit always in close cooperation with NATO, and particularly with the USA, Canada and Great Britain.
A further challenge is posed by the negotiations on future relations with Great Britain, which are under even greater time pressure due to the Corona crisis. Boris Johnson is in defiance mode and is willing to accept a hard Brexit only to declare Britain an independent trading nation from 2021. The collateral damage would be enormous, both for British citizens and their economy and for the EU. The German government must therefore advocate for a framework agreement that at least offers a certain degree of planning security. If all else fails, the EU must be prepared for a ‘No-Deal-Brexit 2.0’, as this remains a possible scenario.
The Federal Republic of Germany is the largest member state of the EU; it has the structural and personnel resources and the necessary weight to develop the cooperative leadership that is now needed. The Federal Government has it in its hands to make the EU fit for the future. It should be ambitious and courageous beyond a mere “Corona Council Presidency”: Think big, think European, make Germany Europe’s Enabling Power!
Michael Link, Spokesman on European Policy of the Free Democratic Party Parliamentary Group in the German Bundestag