It was clear that Ursula von der Leyen was looking forward to the German Presidency of the Council of the EU. At the end of the discussion – held as a video conference on Thursday, 2 July 2020 – between the chairs of the Bundestag’s parliamentary groups, the presidents of the Bundestag and the Bundesrat on one side and the College of the EU Commission, led by its German President von der Leyen on the other, she recalled the previous German Presidency of the Council in 2007. This was a time at which Bundestag President Wolfgang Schäuble was Federal Interior Minister, and she herself sat in Merkel’s cabinet as a “young Minister for Family Affairs”. “I know” said von der Leyen, “that the Council Presidency means a lot of work. But there’s also a real chance to achieve things.”
Bundestag supports plans for conference on the future of Europe
The Bundestag and Bundesrat are also keen to achieve things, which is why they have launched an extensive programme for the parliamentary dimension of the Council Presidency. The parliaments – including, of course, the Bundestag – intend to play a key role in achieving the goal of ensuring that Europe emerges stronger from the crisis, Bundestag President Schäuble stressed. At the same time, the dialogue between the national parliaments and the European Parliament needed to be strengthened, he said. The EU Commission’s plans for a conference on the future of Europe would also be supported by the Bundestag. Schäuble personally was of the opinion that “this conference should also have a mandate for a discussion on necessary treaty amendments”.
Gunther Krichbaum (CDU), Chairman of the EU Affairs Committee, called for the national parliaments to be involved in the conference on an equal footing with the European Parliament. Krichbaum went on to explain why: it could not be ruled out, he said, that there would be treaty amendments, and by this stage at the latest the national parliamentarians would be required to explain the results of these in the regions and constituencies.
Financial assistance: Ratification by national parliaments required
Yet there are other areas where the parliaments also play a decisive role, as Valdis Dombrowskis, von der Leyen’s Vice-President responsible for the economy, outlined. The former Prime Minister of Lativa referred to the planned financial assistance for member states that had been hit especially hard by the Corona crisis, along with the EU’s plans for joint borrowing. Ratification would be required by the national parliaments in the majority of cases, he explained.
The deputy chairwoman of the AfD parliamentary group, Beatrix von Storch, also spoke on this topic. Ratification of the Own Resources Decision would require a two-thirds majority in the Bundestag, she said. Christian Lindner, chairman of the FDP parliamentary group, called for the allocation of funds to be tied to verifiable criteria. “Using new money to continue financing old structural problems will not allow Europe to progress”, he added.
Vice-President Timmermans: ETS is the future
Looking towards the EU Commission’s proposed Green Deal, Frans Timmermans, the Vice-President responsible, said that when it comes to reinvigorating Europe’s economy in the aftermath of the crisis, a road needs to be paved to the future, instead of tying the economy to unsustainable carbon-intensive production methods of the past. Timmermans picked up on the interjection from CDU/CSU group chairman Ralph Brinkhaus, who stated that there needs to be a focus on technology and on the market and thus on emissions trading. The Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) had proved its worth and needed to be expanded, he said, emphasizing: “The ETS is the future.”
For Achim Post, deputy chairman of the SPD parliamentary group, the focus needs to be on coordinating the planned major measures such as the Green Deal, the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) and the European and national recovery programmes with each other in a constructive way. Things that had nothing to do with each other could not be simply patched together, he said.
Revision of guidelines for state aid for broadband
EU Commission Vice-President Margrethe Vestager highlighted the huge significance of digitalisation for the future of Europe. “We need a well-functioning digital single market”, she said and announced the creation of a task force in order to overcome hurdles. Transparency is to play an important role here. In Europe, state aid is monitored and transparent, she said. The EU Commission now also intends to identify foreign branches in order to monitor these.
Vestager also commented on the interjection by the deputy chairman of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group and chairman of the Bundestag group of CSU parliamentarians, Alexander Dobrindt, who maintained that broadband expansion also faced challenges in the form of aid thresholds set by the EU. The Commission was beginning to revise the guidelines on state aid for broadband, said the Vice-President. A great many solutions had been found, she added. The principle here was: market first – “and where necessary, there can be public financing”.
EU High Representative warns against deterioration of relations with Turkey
The EU High Representative Josep Borell was concerned by the EU’s relations with Turkey. Looking at Turkey’s actions in Syria and in the eastern Mediterranean region, he expressed doubts over compliance with human rights. This created tension in relations with Turkey, he said. However, Borell also stressed that despite all efforts to uphold European values, it was necessary to prevent “an uncontrolled deterioration of our relations with Turkey”. In terms of the EU’s relationship with the USA, the High Representative was of the opinion that there needed to be constant reminders of the shared values and objectives. Cooperation must continue – no matter who the President of the United States was, Borell insisted.
The chairwoman of the Left Party parliamentary group, Amira Mohamed Ali, criticised what she viewed as excessive spending by the EU on the defence fund. While 13 billion Euro were planned for this, only three billion were to be allocated for development aid – a clear imbalance, in Mohamed Ali’s view. The Commission President was unable to provide any clarification on this point, however. She could not understand how the Member from the Left Party arrived at these figures, countered von der Leyen.
Faster processing of asylum applications and focus on returns
The Members of the Bundestag and of the EU Commission also examined the topic of migration and asylum. Ylva Johansson, the Commissioner responsible, made clear that migration must occur in a controlled manner. There needed to be more legal ways of arriving in Europe, she said. Johansson also called for more solidarity – on the one hand with migrants – and on the other between the EU Member States. Asylum applications were very unevenly distributed within the EU, she continued. Another aim was to enable faster processing of asylum applications while at the same time focusing on returning those who had been rejected to their country of origin.
In this context, Katrin Göring-Eckardt, chairwoman of the Alliance 90/The Greens parliamentary group, referred to the undoubted existence of a high level of willingness by individual regions or municipalities to take in more refugees. The question was, she said, whether these should not receive greater support and whether those who refused to take people in needed to be sanctioned. Relying on a voluntary basis, acknowledged Commissioner Johansson, was in fact not enough. “We need a binding solidarity mechanism for all Member States.”
More democratic legitimacy through support from the national parliaments
In closing, EU Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič once again emphasised the great significance for the Commission of cooperation with the national parliaments. If there was strong support from the parliaments, the democratic legitimacy of the adopted steps that follow would increase, he said. (hau/03. July 2020)