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POLITICS

Merkel’s legacy at stake as Germany takes EU reins

Germany takes over the EU's six-month presidency Wednesday, with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel staking her legacy on a massive economic recovery plan to help the bloc cope with the coronavirus fallout.

Merkel's legacy at stake as Germany takes EU reins
Angela Merkel greets French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday. Photo: DPA

Merkel's last major role on the international stage comes as the 27-member club faces its deepest recession since World War II, triggered by a pandemic that has killed more than 500,000 people globally.

The crisis has galvanised Europe's most powerful leader who, with just over a year left in her final term, has ditched her usual wait-and-see approach to call for “extraordinary measures” to weather the storm.

“Europe's future is our future,” Merkel said Monday as she stood beside French President Emmanuel Macron to push for a €750 billion ($843 billion) coronavirus recovery fund.

The proposed fund would controversially be financed through shared EU borrowing and marks a stunning U-turn for Germany after years of opposition to debt pooling.

The EU's rotating presidency is Merkel's “last chance” to make her mark as one of Europe's great leaders, Der Spiegel weekly wrote, adding that it was time for Germany to shoulder more responsibility as the bloc's biggest nation and top economy.

“For years the chancellor put off dealing with the chronic problems of the EU and the euro. Now, towards the end of her political career, she has the opportunity to make up for past mistakes,” Spiegel wrote.

There will be no shortage of challenges to tackle in the months ahead.

Post-Brexit negotiations, a more assertive China, rocky transatlantic ties, climate change and the conflicts in Libya and Syria will all be jostling for attention, even if the pandemic promises to dominate the agenda.

'Extraordinary solidarity'

Germany kicked off its EU custodianship by projecting the words “Together for Europe's recovery” onto Berlin's iconic Brandenburg Gate late Tuesday.

After 15 years in office, Merkel is the bloc's longest-serving leader and held the EU presidency once before, in 2007.

But the stakes are higher this time.

READ ALSO: 'You'd see me in a mask at the supermarket': Merkel insists she follows coronavirus rules

A first major test will come at a July 17-18th EU summit, where Merkel hopes leaders will reach an agreement on the €750 billion rescue fund put forward by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen — Merkel's former defence minister.

The money is expected to come mainly in the form of grants for countries hardest hit by the pandemic, such as debt-laden Italy and Spain.

But so-called frugal nations including Austria and the Netherlands want to reign in the spending and are insisting on loans rather than grants.

Merkel has urged holdout nations to “engage in an extraordinary act of solidarity”, warning that an uneven recovery could undermine the EU single market and end up harming stronger economies too.

“We hope we can find a solution, even if the road is still long,” Merkel said at the press conference alongside Macron.

Brexit warning

The fund is based on an idea unveiled by the French-German duo in May, in which the European Commission would raise money on the financial markets to help pay for the post-pandemic recovery in poorer member states.

If accepted, the rescue fund would be a milestone for EU unity.

It would also be a big win for Berlin, and could ease some of the lingering resentment from the eurozone debt crisis a decade ago when Merkel's government insisted on harsh austerity for struggling nations like Greece.

READ ALSO: Merkel wins surprise backing from Germany over EU aid U-turn

Another contentious issue that could define Germany's EU presidency is Brexit.

After weeks of standstill, Britain and the EU have resumed negotiations about the country's divorce deal with the bloc – which could still result in a hard Brexit at the end of the year.

In an interview with several newspapers last week, Merkel warned that Britain would “have to live with the consequences” of having weaker economic ties with the EU.

By Michelle Fitzpatrick

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POLITICS

‘Russia must not win this war,’ says Germany’s Scholz

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz pledged once again to stand with Ukraine against Russia - but said Ukraine's bid to join the EU cannot be sped up.

'Russia must not win this war,' says Germany's Scholz

Scholz said the war in Ukraine was the greatest crisis facing the EU in its history, but that solidarity was strong. 

“We are all united by one goal: Russia must not win this war, Ukraine must prevail,” Scholz said in the speech to the Bundestag on Thursday.

Putin thinks he can use bombs to dictate the terms for peace, the SPD politician said. 

“He’s wrong. He was wrong in judging the unity of Ukrainians, and the determination of our alliances. Russia will not dictate peace because the Ukrainians won’t accept it and we won’t accept it.”

Scholz said it was only when Putin understands that he cannot break Ukraine’s defence capability that he would “be prepared to seriously negotiate peace”.

For this, he said, it is important to strengthen Ukraine’s defences. 

Scholz also pledged to help cut Europe free from its reliance on Russian energy. 

The Chancellor welcomed the accession of Finland and Sweden to Nato. “With you at our side, Nato, Europe will become stronger and safer,” he said.

However, Scholz dampened expectations for Ukraine’s quick accession to the EU.

“There are no shortcuts on the way to the EU,” Scholz said, adding that an exception for Ukraine would be unfair to the Western Balkan countries also seeking membership.

“The accession process is not a matter of a few months or years,” he said.

Scholz had in April called for Western Balkan countries’ efforts to join the EU to be accelerated amid a “new era” in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Last October, EU leaders at a summit in Slovenia only reiterated their “commitment to the enlargement process” in a statement that disappointed the six candidates for EU membership — Albania, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo – who had hoped for a concrete timetable.

“For years, they have been undertaking intensive reforms and preparing for accession,” Scholz said on Thursday.

“It is not only a question of our credibility that we keep our promises to them. Today more than ever, their integration is also in our strategic interest,” he said.

The Chancellor said he would be attending the EU summit at the end of May “with the clear message that the Western Balkans belong in the European Union”.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron has also said it will take “decades” for a candidate like Ukraine to join the EU, and suggested building a broader political club beyond the bloc that could also include Britain.

Financial boost for Ukraine

Meanwhile, Germany said it would contribute one billion euros to shore up the Ukrainian government’s finances, as G7 ministers met to discuss further support for Kyiv in the face of the Russian invasion.

The G7 were coordinating “commitments to finance the government functions of the Ukraine”, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner said at a press conference following the first day of the meeting in Germany.

Germany “will make one billion euros available to the Ukrainians in grants,” Lindner said, in addition to a $7.5-billion pledge from the United
States in the process of being approved by legislators.

Lindner said he expected “further steps forward” to be made before the end of the meeting on Friday.

The war has blown a hole in Ukraine’s finances, with tax revenue having fallen sharply.

Kyiv needed a “double-digit billion euro” figure to keep essential services going, Lindner said earlier in the day ahead of the meeting in Königswinter, near Bonn.

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