That they could not shake hands and that they had to keep their physical distance did not prevent Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel from staging the new vigor and unity that the coronavirus emergency has injected into the Franco-German axis. Berlin and Paris remembered the so-called countries on Monday at Meseberg Castle frugal –Holland, Sweden, Austria and Denmark– who are net beneficiaries of the internal market and, therefore, it is in their interest to reach a financing agreement that allows the most affected countries of the Union to overcome the ravages caused by the pandemic .
Germany and France proposed a mid-trillion-euro reconstruction fund financed by a joint debt issue in mid-May. That boost paved the way for the recovery plan that Brussels presented in late May, consisting of a package of grants and loans totaling € 750 billion. In mid-July, EU leaders plan to physically meet in Brussels with the idea of finalizing the financing package. But they must still overcome the resistance of the self-proclaimed frugal, the EU budget hawks.
At the last European summit, on June 18 and 19, the four reluctant countries maintained a block position, without showing any fissures. The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, trusts that the next appointment on July 17 and 18, which is expected to be in person for the first time since February, will allow negotiations to be held by several bands, with smaller group meetings. Community sources believe that the virtual format has facilitated the entrenchment of the countries in their starting positions and hope that the reunion will open a path to the agreement. Macron and Merkel have already started working on that possible wedge in recent days. The French president visited The Hague last week, where he had a working dinner with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. “We hope that we can find a solution, even though there is a long way to go,” said Merkel, noting the lack of agreement.
Macron’s argument insists on remembering the frugal that the recovery fund “is not only a matter of solidarity, but also of self-interest.” The French president stressed in Meseberg that the countries reluctant to create the fund “are all net beneficiaries of the internal market”, in reference to the enormous dividend that the Netherlands, Sweden, Austria and Denmark achieve thanks to their membership in a market of 500 millions of people. The data handled by the European Commission show that more than 70% of Dutch and Austrian exports have the internal market as their destination. And that market reports a welfare gain of more than 1,500 euros per capita to both countries, a figure that rises to 1,680 in the case of Denmark and 1,300 in that of Sweden. The per capita benefit in Spain and Italy, the two countries that will benefit the most from the fund, stands at 590 and 760 euros, respectively.
This Monday was the first time that Macron and Merkel have seen each other face to face since the pandemic subjected melee diplomacy to an extraordinary parenthesis. The appointment occurs two days before Germany assumes the rotating presidency of the Union. “Expectations are very high,” acknowledged Merkel.
The pandemic, which Merkel has seen as the biggest challenge to the EU since World War II, has clearly disrupted German plans for a presidency that has sparked huge expectations. Finalizing the approval of the recovery plan is an urgent priority of the German presidency. Merkel recently made clear in the Bundestag that Berlin is aware that the socio-economic ravages of the coronavirus can become fertile ground for populism. Supporting the most affected countries, such as Spain or Italy, has become an unsuccessful priority, a consequence of the pandemic.
For Paris and Berlin, there is no time to lose and Meseberg recalled that they aspire to close an agreement on the reconstruction fund, as well as on the Union’s multi-annual budgets in July, before the summer recess. Southern countries are also aware that the longer the European package is put into place, the deeper the recession will be. “It is our absolute priority,” said Macron.
But it is also a question for the Franco-German axis of using the monumental challenge posed by the pandemic to reform Europe. “The moment of truth has come for Europe. We can make the moment of truth a success, ”said Macron. The transformation to illuminate a greener, more social and more digital Europe.
This Monday’s appointment is a kind of reissue. Two years ago, Merkel and Macron conspired in Meseberg to lead the transformation of a European Union that was facing Brexit, populism and intense transatlantic cracks. Those existential threats to the Union have continued to escalate. In the last four months, a much more urgent and incomparable magnitude has also been added: the coronavirus pandemic. That impulse two years ago did not quite materialize. Partly because Berlin dragged its feet in creating a common budget of a certain size. Now, a much bigger and more determined push is needed to meet the new challenge.
Mask to go to the supermarket
During the press conference at Meseberg Castle, north of Berlin, a journalist asked Chancellor Merkel why she was never seen wearing a mask. In most of the 16 German Länder, the mask is mandatory on public transport and in shops, but not on the street.
Merkel has defended from the first moment the most restrictive measures against politicians who have fought for the opening of the economy as soon as possible and has called on the population to be prudent and to observe sanitary rules from the first moment. To the question, he answered that when “he maintains the physical distance”, as happened during the appearance with Macron, he does not need a mask. “When I go shopping, of course I follow the recommendations.” But he also added that he was not going to tell him where and when he goes to the supermarket.
Information about the coronavirus
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– Search engine: The new normality by municipalities
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– Guide to action against the disease