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Merkel’s Message to Europe

ARTICLES - 28 April 2021

It is not Merkel’s style to give lessons to the EU, writes Georgina Wright. But at a recent European People’s Party’s Conference, she did offer some guidance. If the EU is serious about its future, it will need to improve the way it works, listen to all member states and put citizens at the heart of the project.

Few leaders have spent as much time dealing with the EU as German Chancellor Angela Merkel has. She is the only EU leader, along with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Hungary’s Viktor Orban, to have spent more than 10 years in the European Council. Her knowledge of how the EU works reflects years of fine-tuning. By virtue of her longevity in office, she has come to represent Germany and sometimes the EU abroad. Her departure will have a profound effect not only on German politics, but also on the EU.

While it is not Merkel’s style to give lessons to the EU, she did discuss EU reform at a conference organised by the European People’s Party, the EU Parliament’s centre-right parliamentary grouping, last week. Her view is that the EU should only gain more power if this genuinely improves the speed at which it can make good decisions. Any change must be incremental and respect the wishes of all member states - not only those of the founding members. Finally, the EU must be more mindful of what its citizens want.

Better coordination - not more power - will make the EU stronger

One of the greatest challenges for the EU is getting everyone to agree to a common position.

One of the greatest challenges for the EU is getting everyone to agree to a common position. EU governments want to get the best outcome for their citizens. MEPs have their own views and concerns. EU decision-making is complex and it takes time. Institutional knowledge about how the EU works is built over time and through experience. It will not be easily passed on, whatever hand-over notes Merkel leaves to her successor.

For some in the EU, the EU will only be efficient if and when it is given more power, ideally in the form of treaty change. But for Merkel, treaty reform is a last resort. Instead, the EU should improve its decision-making process. There needs to be "greater concerted coordination" within and between EU institutions throughout the policy-making process - not just when it comes to voting on new rules. The EU’s executive bodies and regulators must act faster (for example when authorising new vaccines). And finally, member states should be ready to "play along"; in other words, take an active interest and work closely with the other EU institutions to make the EU work.

The EU needs to pay more attention to Central and Eastern member states

Yet, when it comes to big EU decisions, size and years of membership are often greater indicators of how influential a member state is inside of the Council, the grouping of the 27 governments. For Merkel, the failure to listen to Central and Eastern countries in particular is not only a mistake, it also weakens the EU’s ability to think strategically about its future.

Take EU integration. According to Merkel, Eastern member states support the EU, but they don’t necessarily support "an ever closer union". They don’t always share the same priorities as France and Germany. After more than 15 years of membership, they also want their "views and experiences to be taken seriously".

Merkel is right. Having a more nuanced discussion could help move the EU beyond ideas to concrete action. It would give countries like France a chance to discuss more flexible formats of joint action, for example allowing groups of member states (rather than the EU as a whole) to pursue specific foreign policy initiatives. The EU could also explore Merkel’s idea of a rotating ‘European’ security council to speed up EU decision-making. The rotating nature would ensure that all member states’ priorities and sensitivities were accounted for.

The EU’s sovereignty ambitions need to be realistic

The outbreak of Covid-19 has shown the reality of how woven global supply chains are. For Merkel, this means two things. On the one hand, the EU must be able to respond to threats quickly and efficiently. When it comes to medical research for example, member states need "to pull together their expertise". The EU must also invest in and improve production facilities and strengthen supply chains.

EU sovereignty should be about the ability to react swiftly - not about reinventing the wheel.

She urged the EU "to keep step with the times". The EU must be ready to work with countries around the world. On European security, NATO "remains the main guarantor". Her message appeared to be that EU sovereignty should be about the ability to react swiftly - not about reinventing the wheel or going about it alone.

Finally, Europe needs to listen to what EU citizens have to say. The EU’s Future of Europe Conference - an online platform that allows EU citizens to organise events and share their ideas about the EU - is a good start, but it’s not clear how it will reach those who feel ambivalent or sceptical about the EU. Here too, Merkel urged for caution: the EU should look for practical suggestions on how to improve the EU and above all, be ready to listen.

Merkel is more likely to exit political life with discretion, rather than fanfare later this year. But her departure will come as a shock to Europe. During her time as Chancellor, Merkel has brokered more than one EU agreement, from getting the Lisbon Treaty over the line to getting Germany to take a tough stance toward Russia on Ukraine. She will also be remembered for Germany’s uncompromising stance during the eurozone and later Greece’s sovereign debt crisis. With some exceptions, like Germany’s decision to welcome over 1 million refugees in 2015, Merkel’s Germany will be remembered as a pivotal but cautious actor in Europe.

What will her parting message to the EU be? As she noted last week, "striking a fair balance between tolerance and efficiency is the key to the EU’s success". Only time will tell whether her replacement adopts the same stance.

 

 

Copyright: Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP

 

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