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In the night of 30 June the motto of Germany's Presidency of the EU Council was projected onto the Brandenburg Gate: “Together for Europe's recovery”. Germany took over the Presidency of the Council of the European Union for six months as the EU faced the massive challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Traditionally, at the start of a new Presidency, the country holding the Presidency meets with the European Commission to discuss the priorities of the Presidency. The pandemic meant that the meeting was scaled down and held as a videoconference. After the meeting, the Chancellor and the President of the European Commission answered questions from the press.

The guiding principles of Germany's Presidency of the Council of the EU © Bundesregierung
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The German government’s programme sets out the challenges facing the European Union during Germany’s Presidency of the EU Council. One priority is the Multiannual Financial Framework and the Recovery Fund. At a summit meeting in December, the 27 EU member states agreed on a new Multiannual Financial Framework worth 1.8 trillion euros. Between 2021 and 2023, 750 billion euros of this total sum are to be made available in a Recovery Fund to address the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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On 8 July, the Chancellor spoke in the European Parliament in Brussels. It was her first foreign trip since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The first issue she addressed in her speech was something dear to her heart: fundamental freedoms and cohesion. “These are the rights that apply for everyone. They don’t apply more for some than others. They don’t apply for some people all of the time and for others only sometimes. They apply for everybody, all of the time,” Chancellor Merkel reaffirmed.

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On 13 July EU environment ministers came together for the first time at a meeting chaired by Federal Environment Minister Svenja Schulze. Climate action is an important issue. Under the terms of the Paris Agreement on climate change, the EU set the goal of becoming climate neutral by 2050. At their summit meeting in December, the heads of state and government took a step closer to this target: they agreed that greenhouse gas emissions are to be cut by at least 55% of 1990 levels by 2030.

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Right at the start of Germany’s Presidency of the EU Council, the 27 heads of state and government faced a particularly momentous task. They met on 17 June in Brussels to discuss a Recovery Fund to address the consequences of the pandemic and a new Multiannual Financial Framework. It was the first in-person meeting of the heads of state and government since the outbreak of the pandemic.

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Marathon negotiations ensued. Rather than the two days originally planned, the special meeting of the European Council lasted four days and four nights. After 91 hours and 20 minutes, agreement was reached on the morning of 21 July. The 27 EU member states agreed on a new Multiannual Financial Framework for the period 2021-2027 worth a total 1.8 trillion euros. Chancellor Merkel declared that this agreement was a “response to the gravest crisis in the history of the EU”. 

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On 26 August Federal Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer engaged in talks with her counterparts at an informal meeting in Berlin. It was the first in-person meeting at EU-minister level since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. One important item on the agenda was the design of the Strategic Compass, which is to indicate against what and whom Europe needs to defend itself, and what measures are needed to protect the people of Europe from future threats. 

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On 28 August, the “Gymnich” meeting was held. Every six months it provides an opportunity to discuss current crises and fundamental foreign and security policy issues. Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas (right) and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell (left) invited the EU foreign affairs ministers to Berlin. One item on the agenda was the situation in Belarus. Germany calls for a peaceful national dialogue and an OSCE mediation mission.

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On 14 September the EU held online talks with China. The Chancellor, in her capacity as head of government of the country currently holding the Presidency of the EU Council, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel held talks with China’s President Xi Jinping. On the agenda: climate action, an investment agreement, human rights and the pandemic. Originally the meeting was to be held in Germany, with all 27 EU heads of state and government. The pandemic meant this meeting had to be cancelled. 

© eventfotografen.berlin/Jens Ahner
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At the beginning of October, the Federal Ministry for Youth and the Bundesjugendring jointly hosted the EU Youth Conference. At workshops, some 200 young people from around Europe drew up proposals for stepping up youth participation. At the end of the four-day online event, they presented their ideas to Federal Youth Minister Franziska Giffey. They called for the right to vote at the age of 16 and for young people to be involved in decision-making processes at all political levels.

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Success at the meeting of EU agriculture ministers on 20 and 21 October. Chaired by Federal Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner, the ministers agreed on a general direction for the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. At the heart of the agreement are mandatory environmental and climate standards for all member states. “This is an important step towards greater sustainability, fairness and equitable terms of competition in the EU,” said Julia Klöckner.

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As autumn came, the numbers of new cases began to steadily rise again across Europe. At the European Council meeting in mid-October, the Chancellor proposed that the heads of state and government meet regularly to share information on the pandemic. At the first videoconference on 30 October, she declared that coordinated action to address the pandemic is extremely important. On 19 November the leaders met again and discussed vaccinations, rapid tests and COVID-19 apps.

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Paris, Nice, Vienna and Dresden: in autumn several terrorist attacks shook Europe. At a videoconference on 10 November, Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte about a European response to the appalling attacks. President of the European Council Charles Michel and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen also attended. Chancellor Merkel demanded that the development of European systems be accelerated, for instance, to monitor travel movements at the Schengen Area’s external borders.

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On 27 November, at an informal videoconference, Federal Research Minister Anja Karliczek informed her EU counterparts about the status of planned legislative acts, including the EU’s “Horizon Europe” programme that is to begin in 2021. The predecessor, “Horizon 2020” was the world’s largest programme so far to promote research and innovation. “Horizon Europe” is to be bigger still. The new budget earmarks 80.9 billion euros for the programme.

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As of 2021, Germany, Austria, France and Switzerland intend to offer new international overnight train services, for example, from Berlin to Paris. Leading partner rail companies agreed on this on the sidelines of the meeting of EU transport ministers on 8 December, chaired by Federal Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer. “The TransEuropExpress TEE 2.0 and attractive overnight rail services will make mobility in Europe more climate- and environment-friendly in future,” said Andreas Scheuer. This, he said, is a concrete outcome of Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union.

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On 10 and 11 December, the heads of state and government met for the last European Council meeting during Germany’s Presidency. Important items on the agenda in Brussels included the Multiannual Financial Framework and the Recovery Fund, climate action, the COVID-19 pandemic and relations with Turkey. The negotiations were difficult. After 21 hours, on Friday morning, EU leaders came to an agreement on urgent budget and climate-action matters. “It was worth missing a night’s sleep over,” declared Chancellor Merkel.

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The heads of state and government agreed on the Multiannual Financial Framework and the Recovery Fund. “I am very relieved,” said Chancellor Merkel. For the first time, a commitment to the rule of law and a mechanism to protect the budget have been anchored in the new Multiannual Financial Framework. Poland and Hungary were not originally willing to approve these regulations. The leaders set a new climate target. By 2030 greenhouse gas emissions are to be reduced by at least 55% of 1990 levels.

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It is customary to hold a final press conference following the last regular European Council meeting of a Presidency. The Chancellor thanked the President of the European Council Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. “I believe we were a good team to tackle the big tasks we had on the agenda during the German Presidency of the Council.”