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How did Merkel fair in Germany's last EU presidency with her as chancellor?

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By Christopher Pitchers
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel answers questions from lawmakers about German government's policy at the parliament Bundestag, in Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel answers questions from lawmakers about German government's policy at the parliament Bundestag, in Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020.   -   Copyright  Markus Schreiber/AP
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As 2020 draws to a close, so does Germany's presidency of the EU Council.

Every six months, the tenure rotates between member states and during this period, the presidency chairs meetings at every level within the Council, helping to ensure the continuity of the EU's work.

This term, however, has been unlike any other in the bloc's history.

Wounded by a deadly pandemic, the EU's economy tanked dramatically and its ambitious policy projects, like those on climate and migration, all but took a backseat.

But there was hope among member states that with the steady hand of German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the steering wheel, Europe could be guided successfully out of the unparalleled crisis.

EU looks to borrow money collectively for first time

Merkel quickly turned her focus towards one goal; saving the continent from the economic catastrophe brought on by the coronavirus.

The German premier and her allies in the Council, notably French President Emmanuel Macron, pushed for unprecedented action, which would see the EU borrow money collectively for the first time to assist the hardest hit and ensure a strong upturn. A so-called pandemic recovery fund.

This package, worth up to €750bn was based on common debt between member states, seeing Germany throw overboard its decades-old fiscal orthodoxy.

In the end, the fund was attached to the EU's €1.1tn seven-year budget, taking the two's combined total to €1.8tn.

Hungary and Poland put breaks on the recovery fund

But that's when things got complicated for the Chancellor — Hungary and Poland vetoed the budget.

They had concerns over a rule of law mechanism that MEPs attached to the cash, which only allowed EU funds to be distributed if European values and democratic norms are respected, like the independence of the judiciary and the media.

Budapest and Warsaw claimed the mechanism was being used as a political weapon against them, with accusations of "democratic backsliding" in the two-member states already being well-documented.

As with many EU deals, an agreement was found at the last minute during the year's final EU leaders' summit.

Merkel was able to claim victory, Nicolai von Ondarza from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs told Euronews: "The most important goal of the German presidency was to get an agreement on the recovery fund and the MFF [EU budget].

"And with the latest agreement at the European Council, we can really say this major goal has been achieved. Everything else was overshadowed by the difficulties of the coronavirus pandemic."

Did Merkel drag her heels?

Some say, however, that Merkel and others waited too long to resolve the issue with Warsaw and Budapest, including German Green MEP, Reinhard Bütikofer.

"They burdened the European Parliament and the Commission with righting the wrongs, while they played business as usual with the Hungarians and the Polish," he said.

"And that doesn't work because if the member states relieve themselves of the obligations to insist on upholding rule of law, the unitary institutions, the Parliament and the Council, just by themselves, will have a very hard time pushing that agenda."

Key successes and... Brexit

And there were more historic successes under Germany's stewardship.

At the same meeting of EU leaders in December, a deal was reached between member states to cut greenhouse gas emissions at least 55% by 2030.

Discussions had lasted overnight and into the early hours of the next day and Merkel said that same morning that it was worth "not sleeping a night" to make an agreement.

But amid the success, there was the thorny issue of Brexit that is still yet to be resolved.

Three key issues of fishing rights, governance and a so-called level playing field plagued the talks throughout the year.

With 2021 and the Brexit deadline fast approaching, it could be up to the Portuguese government, which will take the reins for the next six months, to deal with the fallout from Brexit.

With Merkel due to step down as German Chancellor next September, this will be her last presidency of the EU Council.

Whoever fills in next time around is likely to preside over a changed European Union, but, for the most part, Merkel can depart knowing that some of the most pressing challenges Europe has ever faced were met head-on during her final presidency.