German EU presidency - a playground for domestic politics

, by Jan Seifert

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German EU presidency - a playground for domestic politics

Any EU policy is ultimately a domestic national (if not regional) policy in Germany. Whatever the world and EU members might expect of the German EU and G8 presidencies in the first half of 2007, the scope of manouevre is limited by the grand coalition’s ability to unite domestically. In that sense, I find the slogan “Europe - succeeding together” quite appropriate - although probably with a different meaning: When you look at Germany’s domestic field and how the EU has been treated in the past months, it is obvious that “succeding together” would first of all require implementation by our national actors (Minister Presidents, MPs outside the EU affairs committee, coalition leaders, government administrations, media).

Having said this my general impression is that the presidency has been prepared well (even though with the typical German delays due to coalition disagreements and late lobbying from some Länder). What is less prepared is the domestic agenda in 2007. Even though the economy is finally gearing up and even the 3% VAT-rise as of today seems to go by without serious economic implications, the domestic reform projects remain frozen. Health is a serious headache for this grand coalition - but the reform simply cannot prolonged much longer. Equally important is probably the Föderalismusreform II about the financial relations between the Länder.

Here, I would hope on some great leaps forward with again a clearer separation of competences and more power for the Landtage. Unfortunately, a system in which 6 pay for 10 other Länder is by nature not very likely to produce any serious reforms with financial implications for net receivers. These two reform projects will dominate the national agenda also during this first semester and by doing so, they will keep the chancellor busier than she needs to be with national issues and conflicts.

The past months have given me the impression that these well-educated and influential multipliers can make the real difference. Studies (s. e.g. Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte) show that support for the EU and knowledge about it are sort of proportional to the level of education. Consequently, it is even more worrying when you are exposed to the EU attitude of most senior actors who are not top-top-level.

The Eurospepticism of too many MPs, senior officials and journalists not directly dealing with EU issues is starting to be freightening in this country.

Therefore, it does not surprise me anymore when only a third of Germans expect the presidency to improve the EU’s standing in Germany (s. WELT).

More than that you only have to switch on television and one of the most high-profile political talkshows, “Berlin Mitte”. They had the good idea of an interview with Merkel and Barroso in December. But good intentionts, a positive chancellor, Commission president and host Maybrit Illner will never swing the mood if they put up such an idiotic format: Before introducing an issue to discuss, a short reportage was giving all the bad examples of bureaucracy.

Now that we have come this far, it does not further surprise me that the government is spending a few hundred thousand Euros these days to put advertisements in our biggest newspapers, starting to argue the case for why EU membership is a good thing.

As long as the completely voluntary involvement of several thousand people organised in Europa Union (UEF) or JEF is not valued with a single word on neither the government’s nor the presidency’s website, I am not surprised that we do not see attitude changes. Europe can only grow from the grassroots.

Another worrying indication of how fundamentally Germany changed its attitude towards the EU was a comment a high Commission recently made when we met. He said that if there was not a remainder of a strong EU commitment on the very top of German politics, i.e. chancellor, foreign minister and a few good MPs in the EU affairs committee, senior officials in the ministries as well as the Staatskanzleien, the Minister Presidents would probably have killed the EU already.

But not all is bad, here is where I see some scope for success. 1. Our ambitious environmental minister Gabriel will make sure that energy policy and climate change will play a key role on the G8/EU agenda. I sincerely hope that the G8 presidency can be used to bring the US into some sort of a climate change coalition. 2. Former head of Schröder’s chancellary and now foreign minister Steinmeier simply knows the national administration “apparat” like no other. His intelligence and vainless approach will ensure that Germany will play a positive role wherever it can. One example of this is possibly his recent trip to the central Asian countries to prepare for a wider EU strategy on the region. 3. If anything, Merkel is a good broker.

Leading the European Council is surely not an easy undertaking. But managing 16 Minister Presidents of which at least 4 think that they would have deserved the chancellorship instead of her, is in my eyes an even bigger achievement. Right after taking office, Merkel has called Germany’s most senior EU experts from the various administrations into key positions in her environment. I have no doubt she listens to these people for advice when and where necessary.

As much as it is nice to have a big agenda for the Presidency, I will measure Merkel and Steinmeier on two issues: 1. Will they be able to bring forward the Euroean Constitution while integrating civil society in a sustainable process? 2. Will they show the determination to make a serious difference on climate change? The coming years will not see a convergence of EU and G8 presidencies of any country but Germany that has possibly more to gain from a path towards renewable energies.

If I had one wish, I would like to see Minister Presidents standing up and supporting the EU in their daily politics. Maybe the upcoming elections in Bremen can bring some change on that front?

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