Ischinger: German-French recovery plan could transform EU and seal Merkel’s legacy
Chairman of Munich Security Conference urges capitalizing on pandemic to make historic changes.
The Franco-German proposal for a €500 billion coronavirus recovery fund could be a first step toward deeper integration that transforms the EU into a global power on foreign policy and security issues, according to Wolfgang Ischinger, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference.
Ischinger, a German former ambassador to the U.S. and the U.K who runs the leading foreign policy gathering, told POLITICO that the breakthrough proposal for the EU to issue common debt on such a large scale would inevitably face opposition in coming weeks. But he said the plan, if ultimately approved by all 27 EU countries, could be the catalyst for sweeping changes, including a new EU treaty, that defines the legacy of German Chancellor Angela Merkel who has said that she will not seek reelection in 2021.
“It was not an exaggeration to speak of the current challenge, the pandemic challenge, as really a question of survival of the European Union,” Ischinger, a prominent voice in international affairs, said in a Brussels Playbook “virtual interview” with POLITICO’s Florian Eder.
“And I think what we saw yesterday was the acknowledgement by Emmanuel Macron, and by my chancellor, by Angela Merkel, of the fact that this situation is serious. It is an existential challenge and existential challenges require extraordinary measures and this is why they took this step, which is unprecedented, which takes us into, I would think, a new chapter of the European Union.”
Ischinger said that he hoped the proposal would give momentum to further changes that could be pursued during Germany’s presidency of the Council of the EU, which begins on July 1, and that would lend Berlin’s muscle to what so far have seemed to be the French president’s pie-in-the-sky ambitions for an overhaul of how the EU operates.
“I think Chancellor Merkel has well understood: Let’s never waste a crisis” — Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference
“Yesterday Chancellor Merkel hinted at the fact that this was only going to be the beginning, that there is more to come. She even mentioned the possibility, or the perspective, of treaty changes, and quite frankly I think that’s where the European Union needs to go — with or without treaty changes — we need to transform, to reprioritize the European Union,” Ischinger said.
As an example, Ischinger said the EU needs to move toward majority voting on foreign policy issues in the Council so that it can emerge as a true global power.
“We need to be able to speak with one voice, not only on trade and agriculture but on foreign policy and security policy and that inevitably will require the European Council to start a discussion about introducing majority voting on foreign policy,” Ischinger said, adding: “That is revolutionary.”
Ischinger noted that Merkel’s approval ratings have soared in the coronavirus crisis and said this put her in a position to define her legacy with a big push on EU affairs in the remaining year and a half of her final term.
“The possibilities for her to come up with a meaningful EU presidency in the second half of this year and preparing the European Union for the future, together with France, and hopefully a significant number of other forward-leaning member states, the chances of doing that have enormously improved,” Ischinger said.
“I think Chancellor Merkel has well understood: Let’s never waste a crisis,” he continued. “Let’s do what is possible now under crisis conditions, and what would not have been possible under normal circumstances, not with the German Bundestag and its skepticism regarding budgetary outlays.”
The interview touched on an array of other issues, including EU relations with China and the United States, which are each experiencing different types of tensions.
A poll published on Tuesday showed how German attitudes to both countries are in flux. Asked which is more important, Germany’s relationship with China or with the U.S., 37 percent of respondents said America, 36 percent China, according to the survey by the Pew Research Center and by Kantar Public for Germany’s Körber-Stiftung.
Ischinger cited U.S. President Donald Trump’s abandoning of the Paris climate accords and the Iran nuclear deal, as well as his recent threats to end U.S. funding for the World Health Organization as reasons why the reputation of the U.S. has suffered in German public opinion.
“The fact that the Trump administration is now threatening to actually walk away from WHO at a moment when WHO is more needed by the global community than at any moment in history before, I think this worries Germans and they have doubts about the reliability of this current U.S. administration,” Ischinger said.
But he also stressed that it was important to recognize that the U.S. remains a democracy that shares the EU’s fundamental values, even as China’s standing has clearly improved in the eyes of German citizens.
“Making sure that people understand the difference between a democracy, a partner that is currently going through some difficulties, let me put it that way, the United States, that is one story,” he said. “And dealing with a growing global power like China that is not a democracy, that is governed by the Communist Party of China, that is a totally different relationship.”
Ischinger also said the Munich Security Conference, which packs world leaders, government officials, diplomats and other policy experts into the Hotel Bayerischer Hof for a long weekend in February, might need to be adjusted or “thinned out” to address continuing health concerns — but that he had his fingers crossed the event would take place.
“I hope that by next year we can have another Munich Security Conference,” he said. “We’ll do our best to make sure that it can happen.”