The Future of Europe in Light of the Covid-19 Pandemic – a View from Germany

Katrin Böttger, Institute for European Politics

The year 2021 is shaping up to become a decisive year in the fight of the Covd-19 pandemic both in view of its health-related as well regarding its economy-related effects. The measures which the EU and its members states have taken in 2020 present an optimistic foundation regarding health competences, economic aid and the respect for the EU’s fundamental rights.

Concerning the fight against health-related effects of the pandemic, the treaties grant the EU only limited competences in health policy. Despite that, the member states joined forces in the fight against Covid-19: The European Medicines Agency was tasked with evaluating and eventually recommending the use of the Covid-19 vaccinations. In addition, the European Commission set up a joint vaccination strategy which includes the negotiation with several pharmaceutical companies to secure enough vaccination doses for all European citizens. Such a strategy is without precedent in strengthening the EU’s role in health policy.

In view of the fight against the economy-related effects, the new Multiannual Financial Framework together with the recovery fund of “Next Generation EU” are foreseen. The decision, taken at the longest European Council meeting in history (lasting four days from 17 until 21 July 2020) has a record volume of more than 1.8 billion Euro. This result was also particularly noteworthy because the German government for the first time agreed to take on large debts from the EU, after continuously rejecting this during the crisis in the euro area in the wake of the financial and sovereign debt crisis In 2008. In view of the huge collapse of the European economy caused by the Covid-19 crisis and the burdens of the national stimulus measures, there was little choice but to agree to some kind of Eurobonds for a European ‘economic package’ to share burdens and risks.

The measures in both areas show the ability to functionally increase integration – a kind of sectoral federalization – in certain areas in times of crisis and beyond what is foreseen in the treaties. Both the pandemic as well as the measures to overcome its economic fallout are unique, with the latter representing a fundamental change in the funding structures of the EU. Experience in the past has shown, however, that such one-time measures have often been absorbed into the DNA of the EU, when we look at examples such as the Schengen Agreement.

One area that is problematic both with regard to the cohesion of the EU and the measures to overcome the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic is the area of rule of law. In the fight of the pandemic member states like Hungary showed – yet again – a worrying degree of power concentration at the governmental or presidential level to the detriment of parliamentary oversight. The Rule of Law Mechanism that was ultimately decided upon requires a causal link between breaches of the rule of law and negative effects on the Union’s financial interests, while the mere finding of a violation of the rule of law is not sufficient to trigger the mechanism. It remains to be seen, in how far either the Rule of Law Mechanism and/or these power concentrations will have a lasting effect on the European integration process.

Overall, the EU has found constructive compromises regarding last year’s challenges. In 2021, one important focus will lie on the legal and practical implementation of the numerous decisions taken under the German EU-Council presidency, which also include the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement and the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment. Relations with the new US-president Joe Biden will have to be forged and in Germany, the election campaign for the Bundestag election on 26 September 2021 will take center stage.