17th Aug 2022

German presidency success clouded by Polish row

  • Ms Merkel first played down hopes, then took a star role at summits (Photo: German EU presidency)

Knowing that its EU presidency was raising big expectations, Germany has been applying the media strategy of regularly playing down hopes before major meetings, allowing chancellor Angela Merkel to subsequently play a star role at European summits and confirm her reputation as an able negotiator and compromise-broker.

The June summit deal on the fate of the rejected EU constitution can be counted as one of Ms Merkel's more notable achievements.

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Diplomats note that Berlin's weight in the EU helped a lot to reach the deal, and that it would have been almost impossible for the next two small-size presidencies, Portugal and Slovenia, to bridge member states' deep divides on the issue.

Berlin said modestly at the beginning of the year it would aim at a "roadmap" on how to clean up the EU's institutional mess before 2009, but it became gradually clear that the Germans were in fact preparing a detailed treaty blueprint.

Germany's haste with the institutional file came at the cost of a bitter dispute with its eastern neighbour Poland over EU voting weights however, with Polish prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski's claims that EU votes should take count of World War II losses causing a new low in German-Polish relations.

Simon Tilford, analyst at the London-based Centre for European Reform, said the Germans somewhat underestimated Polish sensitivities and could have worked more systematically from the start to "prevent" the row with Warsaw.

"They could have seen this coming," he said. "They handled the Poles well but they probably underestimated the damage done in Poland by the [previous German] Schroeder government," he added, referring to the former chancellor's gas pipeline deal with Poland's other World War II enemy - Russia - over Warsaw's head.

Ms Merkel booked her other summit success in March, when the EU agreed its first comprehensive strategy against climate change.

Climate success

The CO2 emissions and renewables targets agreed at the summit helped to strengthen Europe's credibility on global warming on the world stage, with the German chancellor subsequently brokering an international climate deal at a G8 meeting in June.

Climate change however also represented an area where the German presidency fought hard and openly for its national interests, with Ms Merkel intervening in January to water down a European Commission proposal to cut car emissions.

The heavy-handed move was intended to defend Germany's automotive giants - but it had the effect of undermining much of Berlin's green credentials, while also harming its claim to be an honest broker.

Meanwhile, the EU saw some breakthroughs in the area of justice and home affairs under Berlin's chairmanship, particularly the adoption by the entire bloc of the so-called Prum Treaty on the sharing of DNA, fingerprint data and vehicle registration databases.

German-inspired legislation was also adopted against racist and xenophobic abuse - including the denial of genocidal events.

EU-Russia fiasco

But Berlin's record on foreign policy is seen as much less impressive, especially on EU-Russia ties, which it had earmarked as a top priority.

The Germans, who maintain close economic and political ties with Moscow, failed to open negotiations on a revamped EU-Russia partnership agreement, with the EU-Russia summit in Samara in April marked as one of the most icy in recent memory.

Ms Merkel at the summit criticised Russian president Vladimir Putin on democratic standards and his failure to lift a ban on Polish meat exports. But some EU diplomats say that Berlin's belated decision to take a tougher line on Moscow came only due to pressure from Poland and the Baltic states.

"The Germans were defending their bilateral relationship with the Russians in terms of not wanting to attack them too hard," one European diplomat said.

Even under the leadership of its biggest member state, it proved difficult for the EU to influence events in the Middle East (where German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier had pushed in vain for a "revival" of peace efforts) and on Kosovo, where hardly any progress was made in UN diplomacy on final status for the territory.

Effective but pushy

Brussels-based diplomats are generally positive about how Germany handled its stint at the EU helm, describing the presidency as "effective," "pragmatic" and ready if necessary to sacrifice its own interests to pave the way for deals in the EU council, the member states' decision-making body.

The Germans style was also seen as strongly "capital-directed," not very transparent and sometimes a bit pushy.

Lower-level German officials in Brussels are said to have been under strict guidelines from Berlin, which gave them little room to search for council deals themselves.

Nordic transparency fans note that the number of ministers meetings open to the public have gone down under German rule, after the Finnish presidency last year made a big point about televising council discussions.

Germany's unilateral preparation of the Berlin declaration for the EU's 50th birthday sparked accusations of secrecy, especially from the Czech republic which complained it was hardly consulted over the document.

Berlin's ambassador to the EU, Wilhelm Schönfelder, also managed to regularly "ruffle feathers" in the weekly EU ambassadors meeting in Brussels with his "robust" style of pushing compromises, diplomats say.

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