The champagne stayed in the fridge. And instead of a hug or at least a hearty handshake, there was merely a tentative wave at the camera. Due to COVID-19, the signing of the Declaration by the Parliaments of Germany, Portugal and Slovenia “on the preparation and running of the parliamentary dimension of the Trio Presidency of the Council of the European Union” on Monday, 29 June 2020 took place in pared-down form as a video conference. In the rather modest surroundings of the small protocol chamber in the Reichstag Building, Bundestag President Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU) and Bundesrat President Dietmar Woidke (SPD), Prime Minister of Brandenburg, were joined by Eduardo Ferro Rodrigues, the President of the Assembly of Portugal, who appeared on-screen from Lisbon, while Igor Zorčič, President of the National Assembly of Slovenia, and Alojz Kovšca, President of the National Council of Slovenia, were connected via a video link from Ljubljana.
Parliamentary participation in the Conference on the Future of Europe
In the Declaration by the Presidency Trio – Germany takes over the EU Council Presidency until the end of 2020, followed by Portugal during the first half and Slovenia in the second half of 2021 – the Parliaments agree joint goals and projects for the next 18 months. Their aim is, among other things, to boost Europe’s competitiveness and future viability and thus reduce, rather than increase, disparities in Europe. The Presidents of the Parliaments also attach importance to the proposed Conference on the Future of Europe; in their view, the direct participation of national parliaments in the Conference must be guaranteed.
The Parliaments of the Trio Presidency support the Commission’s efforts to achieve a breakthrough in the reform of European asylum law with a New Pact on Asylum and Migration and, in this context, jointly propose a High-Level Conference on Migration and Asylum in Europe. Thematically aligned with this is their intention to work towards sustained peace and security on the African continent.
Schäuble: Governments must be encouraged to see the crisis as an opportunity
The Trio Presidency faces unusually difficult challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences, said Bundestag President Schäuble during the meeting with the Presidents of Parliament. In Europe, interparliamentary as well as intergovernmental cooperation is especially important in overcoming the crisis, in Schäuble’s view. Ultimately, it is down to the parliaments to encourage their respective governments to see the current disruptive crisis as an opportunity “to make Europe more innovative, resilient, technologically independent and more united in its external action”.
The Trio Presidency, according to the Bundestag President, will also be judged “by the extent to which we are able, over the next 18 months, to progress joint policy initiatives”. Schäuble conceded that on the issue of possible Treaty amendments, there is no common position within the Trio. However, he called for “an open discussion of the various options and ambitions”.
Woidke: Bundesrat is looking to strengthen the regions and the subsidiarity principle
Bundesrat President Woidke felt that Germany, Portugal and Slovenia “make a good trio” – for several reasons. Germany, as a founding member, has been part of the EU from the start. Portugal joined during the southern enlargement in the 1980s, while Slovenia acceded in the last major enlargement in the early 21st century, which brought various Central and Eastern European countries into the EU. “We all bring our highly diverse backgrounds and traditions to the EU,” said Woidke. Furthermore, the three countries have one very significant experience in common: “We have all overcome undemocratic systems and dictatorships, albeit in highly diverse forms, and we have come home to freedom, the rule of law and democracy in Europe.”
As a representative of the 16 German states, Woidke attaches great importance to Europe’s regional embeddedness. “In the Bundesrat, we focus particularly on strengthening the regions and the subsidiarity principle,” he said. This is being done not only in Germany but “on behalf of all regions throughout Europe”.
Rodrigues calls for “a far-sighted policy response”
Rodrigues, the President of the Assembly of Portugal, emphasised that the Declaration by the Trio Presidency defines the European reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a cross-cutting challenge that requires a far-sighted policy response. Ferro Rodrigues also identified the continuation of free movement in the Schengen Area as an important goal.
Major efforts had been expected from his country during the financial crisis in 2007/2008 as well, he continued. In fact, Portugal had successfully consolidated its finances, with the result that it has some leeway in managing the current crisis. It generated a budget surplus in 2019, and in November 2019, the European Commission predicted economic growth of 1.7 per cent for Portugal in 2020. However, as he pointed out, an estimated 6 per cent drop in GDP is now forecast for this year.
The longer the pandemic lasts, the worse the macroeconomic impacts will be, Rodrigues concluded. Europe’s Recovery Fund can help to create more balanced conditions for all countries.
Zorčič: COVID-19 crisis should not stall the enlargement process
In the view of Igor Zorčič, President of the Slovenian National Assembly, the involvement of the Parliaments confers “more legitimacy” on EU decisions. With regard to the communication via videoconference necessitated by the pandemic, he said that dialogue using modern technology is better than no dialogue at all. The Declaration rightly includes a commitment to promoting the use of digital technologies. Zorčič made it clear that Slovenia supports the enlargement process for the Western Balkan countries. This process should not be stalled by the pandemic, he said.
Kovšca: Western Balkan states are currently in the “waiting room”
Alojz Kovšca, President of the National Council of Slovenia, added that these countries are currently in the waiting room. They should be given an opportunity to play a productive role in Europe. He was convinced that the countries of the Western Balkans can make an important contribution to the EU – in the area of food security, for example.
After the signing of the Declaration – each President doing so individually in his capital city – Wolfgang Schäuble appeared somewhat melancholy. “We wish we could have welcomed you all in person here in the Reichstag Building in Berlin,” he said. “Right now, we would be enjoying a glass of champagne.” (hau/26 June 2020)
The signing of the common declaration of the parliaments of Germany, Portugal and Slovenia "on the implementation of the Parliamentary Dimension of the Trio Presidency of the Council of the European Union" took place on Monday, 29 June 2020, Corona restrictedly in a reduced form as a video conference.