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13th Apr 2024

Berlin and Brussels downplay mutual EU friction

  • "Even among friends we are always challenging eachother," said Mr Barroso (Photo: German EU presidency)

Germany and the European Commission have downplayed a series of recent clashes over EU policies such as energy and justice matters, displaying unity at the launch of Berlin's six-month presidency of the bloc.

The college of commissioners on Tuesday (9 January) met the German government in Berlin, kicking off Germany's stint at the helm of the EU which will see both Brussels and Berlin eager to avoid the frequent confrontations which characterised 2006.

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Commission officials throughout last year complained about Berlin obstructing key policy initiatives, with German state secretary for the economy Joachim Wuermeling only weeks ago attacking commission plans to boost competition in the energy market by breaking up large energy firms such as Germany's E.ON.

Berlin has also spearheaded opposition against a flagship proposal by commission president Jose Manuel Barroso to remove national vetoes in EU justice decisions, while at the same time resisting several Brussels interventions in internal-market related areas such as banking and high-speed internet.

German cabinet ministers have used vocal terms to express their dissatisfaction with Brussels, with environment minister Sigmar Gabriel recently calling commission-proposed cuts in German greenhouse gas emissions "adventurous."

But now that Berlin has taken over the EU presidency, both German chancellor Angela Merkel and commission chief Barroso were keen to smooth over any divisions.

"If sometimes there are differences of opinion that is only natural," Mr Barroso said. "This should not be dramatised."

"Even among friends we are always challenging each other," he added characterising his relationship with the chancellor as "friendship."

German interests

Meanwhile, the fact that Berlin will for half a year chair the 27-member EU could result in a somewhat less assertive stance on the EU stage, Ms Merkel indicated.

"During our presidency we also have other tasks than to defend German interests," she indicated. "That is what we normally do. Now, the task is to also speak for the other 26 member states towards the commission."

But the first test of the tricky working relationship is likely to emerge soon, with the EU competition commissioner set to announce a fresh offensive to clamp down on energy firms monopolising the market - some of which are German.

Ms Merkel, a conservative, is also under pressure from her coalition partner the social democrats (SPD) to take a tough line with Brussels on its plans to cut carbon emissions, with an SPD letter obtained by Reuters on Tuesday suggesting that legal action against the commission should be left open as an option.

Merkel and Schroder

When Ms Merkel took office last autumn, she vowed to improve relations with the EU executive which had become markedly troubled under her social democrat predecessor Gerhard Schroder.

Mr Schroder had opposed key EU economic laws such as the services directive, while regularly lashing out at Brussels "bureaucrats".

Ms Merkel has instead shied away from any public clashes with the commission, while creating an image of herself as a constructive peacemaker at EU summit meetings.

But at the same time her ministers, such as Mr Gabriel, appear to have followed Mr Schroder's more confrontational line in their day-to-day dealings with Brussels officials.

On top of this, much of the substance of Mr Schroder's criticism on EU "bureaucracy" is supported by Ms Merkel even if she does not share his style. She reaffirmed after meeting Mr Barroso on Tuesday that cutting EU red tape is one of her top presidency priorities.

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