Germany holds the Presidency of the Council of the EU under exceptional circumstances, declared Chancellor Merkel on Tuesday. The COVID-19 pandemic is challenging Europe at all levels – in the member states, in the regions and in the municipalities. She said she was observing the rising numbers of new cases in almost all parts of Europe with great concern. “We must not forfeit what we have achieved thanks to restrictions in recent months,” warned the Chancellor in her speech to the meeting of the European Committee of the Regions. Another lockdown must be avoided, she said.

The Chancellor thanked the members of the Committee for shouldering responsibility during the pandemic in the municipalities and regions. They, more than anyone, are aware of the challenges at local level – in hospitals, care homes, schools and nurseries, in companies and in public places. “Without you, we can have only a limited impact as heads of state and government – and we can have just as limited an impact without the citizens of Europe.” Crisis management is a herculean task, said the Chancellor, that will be managed all the better if the people of Europe pull together.

Exceptional measures

The Chancellor explained that it had been extremely important to put together a comprehensive package in order to contain the economic and social impact of the pandemic. This is what the European credit and funding programmes and the decisions of the European Council on the multiannual financial framework and the recovery instrument aim to achieve. On 21 July, after four days of deliberations, the 27 EU member states agreed on a multiannual financial framework worth 1.8 trillion euros for the period 2021 to 2027. “We believe that such an exceptional situation also calls for exceptional measures,” said Chancellor Merkel.

Now it is vital to get this package under way so that the funds can actually be deployed from the beginning of 2012, stressed the Chancellor. To this end, the German Presidency is working flat out to achieve an agreement with the European Parliament.

Climate action and digital transformation

The Chancellor touched on two other important priorities of Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union: climate action and the digital transformation. Progress is needed in both areas. It is about preparing for the future – Europe needs to tap into new economic opportunities. Europe’s competitiveness will increasingly depend on the extent to which it manages to achieve greater digital sovereignty and to strengthen the single market in this regard. As the single market is developed, however, people must always be at the centre, stressed Chancellor Merkel. “We think of economic and social affairs as being two sides of the same coin.” Europeans, she added, must tread their own path with confidence.

With regard to climate action, the Chancellor is convinced that a global solution will be successful above all if Europe plays a pioneering role. This week’s European Council meeting will be looking at climate action. The German government supports the proposal of the European Commission to reduce emissions by at least 55 per cent of the 1990 levels by 2030. Germany is also working to achieve agreement in the Council regarding a European Climate Law, before the end of the year if possible.

Decentralised structures make Europe strong

The Chancellor also addressed the other challenges facing the EU during Germany’s Presidency – migration and Brexit. To successfully address all these challenges, a strong Europe is needed, underscored Chancellor Merkel. We need a Europe with member states whose strength emerges precisely from decentralised structures, which do justice to the different situations in the regions, cities and municipalities.

Subsidiarity in action and European achievements such as freedom of movement and the freedoms of the internal market and the Schengen area stand Europe in good stead to cope with the pandemic in particular. Chancellor Merkel pointed here to the fact that hospitals in EU member countries have admitted COVID-19 patients from other member states. “We have, however, also seen that European cooperation has its limits.” At the outset of the pandemic, above all, the states of Europe concentrated too much on fighting the outbreak at national level.

“But this experience teaches us once again that we need each other. We need close European cooperation in order to overcome the major challenges. This can only be achieved together with members of the public and not over their heads,” declared the Chancellor.