A critical point for EU–UK relations: The British perspective on the German Council Presidency


Britain is in the midst of finalising the Brexit transition process while also being hit especially hard by the Covid-19 pandemic. The German Council Presidency has to protect public health all over Europe while also preventing another financial crisis from happening. But this might also give new momentum to systemic change towards a more sustainable economy.

Flag of Great Britain in London

From a British perspective the German Presidency will begin at a critical point: the day after the deadline for the UK to request an extension to the transition period, an extension that Prime Minister Johnson has said he will not request, in spite of the slow pace of negotiations and the need to focus government energy on the global pandemic and protect public health.

I welcome the fact that Germany will be holding the presidency at this time because its long and deep commitment to European solidarity and to upholding the principles of the EU will be vital. It is clear that, rather than negotiating in detail and with good faith, the British government will rely on the same strategy it used to achieve the exit deal: playing a game of brinkmanship and daring the EU negotiators to risk No Deal. The price demanded will be abandoning the level playing-field – the guarantee that the UK would not be allowed to undercut EU standards on food safety, climate change, tax, competition policy, and a wide range of other important issues.

The German Presidency has to defend European standards

I was deeply disappointed that Barnier responded to political pressure during the exit negotiations and agreed to move the level playing-field out of the legally binding text so that it would have to be fought for during the future trade talks. It must not be abandoned again. We already see the UK government refusing to uphold food and farming standards and, if the EU is to avoid a race-to-the-bottom, having a minimal trade deal will be better in the long run than abandoning the level playing-field. I look to the German Presidency to defend European standards and values against the Brexit attack, which was always an attack on these standards rather than a bid for freedom, as the propaganda suggested.

For the UK, the Covid crisis has come at the worst possible time, immediately after our withdrawal from the Union that has formed the bedrock of support for our exporting companies. Because of the global lockdown, far from fulfilling the myth of ‘Global Britain’, British companies see their exports at risk with no chance of making new contacts further afield. The failed ideology of privatisation and individualism that led to Brexit has also resulted in a public health disaster in the UK, with the highest death rate in the world. If only we had followed the principle of German President Frank-Walter Steinmeyer that ‘This pandemic is not a war. Nations do not stand against other nations, or soldiers against other soldiers. It is a test of our humanity.’

The most important task for the German Presidency will be to ensure that the public health crisis does not turn into a continent-wide depression. The Commission proposal for a recovery fund has the right level of ambition and we must look to the German Presidency to prevent the so-called ‘frugal four’ from placing misguided ideology and national self-interest above the vital need for a Europe-wide recovery. In the post-Covid recovery period it really will be true that Europe will only be as strong as its weakest economy and solidarity is vital.

Of course, the direction of that investment is also crucially important and the German Presidency should ensure that finance is directed towards ensuring that the EU emerges from the Corona Crisis both more sustainable more equitable. The Scottish Greens followed the example of Denmark and France in ensuring that firms or individuals who are registered in tax havens, or are a subsidiary of an offshore company, are prevented from receiving support grants as part of any post-Covid stimulus.

A new opportunity for decisive change towards a Green economy

It is also vital that the lip-service being played to Building Back Better is enshrined in any plan for public investment. With much of the European economy on life-support there is a chance to require the conversion process to make our companies fit for a net-zero carbon future. We can direct the emergency economic support in such a way that it breathes life into the long over-due proposals for a Green New Deal and energises the transition to a sustainable economy. This would ensure that, once we come out of the emergency period, we will have an economy far more prepared to tackle the longer-lasting and deeper climate crisis.

In normal times it would be difficult to imagine the rapid restructuring of our economy this report implies, but the shutdown of large parts of the economy as a result of the Coronavirus means that every sector that is not operating at full capacity should be enabled to rethink its approach to production. As well as social distancing measures this could include redesigning production processes to achieve significant and accelerating energy and resource reductions. Indeed, the Commission could make the agreement of targets for these reductions a condition of making public money available to these businesses. If we future generations are picking up the tab, they have a right to demand that the businesses they will be supporting operate in a way that guarantees they have a secure future with a safeguarded planet and climate.

This is in line with a requirement set by the European Green Group that we would look to the German Presidency to uphold:

‘All big companies, including banks, insurance and financial actors, receiving public financial support should be required to disclose publicly how they intend to align their economic activities to the objective of limiting global warming under 1.5°C. This must take the form of science-based and company-wide emission reduction targets and a clear and binding plan to become climate-neutral by 2050 at the latest, prioritising direct emissions reduction and energy efficiency.’

I also hope for European leadership on a global stage. When a global financial crisis threatened in 2009, British Prime Minister Brown was able to lead the G20 into a massive investment programme that prevented a downward spiral. With both the UK and US led by incompetent populists, the role of saving the global economy must be played by European leaders, primarily Merkel and Macron. While their priority will be the European investment programme, Europe must also lead in ensuring debt forgiveness of the poorest countries of the world and strengthened and democratised global financial institutions.