Peter Liese interview: EU Council Presidency in a pandemic

Germany took over the rotating EU Presidency against the backdrop of a global pandemic and the ensuing turmoil and uncertainty. Lorna Hutchinson spoke to German EPP deputy Peter Liese about the crisis-wrought presidency and hope for the future.
Peter Liese MEP | Photo credit: European Parliament Audiovisual

By Lorna Hutchinson

Lorna Hutchinson is Deputy Editor of The Parliament Magazine

09 Oct 2020

When Berlin examined its priorities for Germany’s upcoming six-month presidency of the Council of the European Union, undoubtedly the furthest thing from its mind would be to take the baton from Zagreb amid an unprecedented global health and economic crisis.

Nevertheless, Peter Liese is grateful that, in addition to facing the crisis head on, Germany has stayed the course on other key issues such as climate change.

In a webinar hosted by Dods EU Monitoring, Polit-X and The Parliament Magazine, Liese, who is also a medical doctor, explained how he has faith in his fellow colleagues in Germany and government ministers - particularly Chancellor Angela Merkel - to cope with the huge challenges the pandemic has created.

“Angela Merkel is highly experienced, and she managed Germany well during this pandemic. She also has an ambition to make the German Presidency successful, so this is really important”

Asked if Germany can live up to the high expectations that it will be able to turn this “Corona Presidency” into a success and help lay the groundwork for the EU27 to emerge stronger from the crisis, Liese says, “Angela Merkel is highly experienced, and she managed Germany well during this pandemic. She also has the ambition to make this German Presidency successful, so this is really important. When it comes to health, Minister Jens Spahn has already proved that he was really delivering in Germany before the pandemic. So, I think that with these two positions in particular - Chancellor and Health Minister - we can expect a lot from the German Presidency.”

Turning to the often uncoordinated and haphazard responses from EU Member States in attempting to contain the spread of the Coronavirus, Liese believes that a blanket EU approach to such health threats would be more prudent and effective.

“That was something that my political group had already asked for in March, when the Corona pandemic started. It’s more urgent than ever, after seeing this uncoordinated approach during the travel season. Unfortunately, we have seen more of an increase of COVID-19 in some countries than in others, but almost all EU countries experience an increase after the travel season. So something needs to be done, but it needs to done be in a coordinated manner.”

He adds, “We were very lucky that in most European countries, people followed the advice of governments. At least 90 percent of them respected the rules. However, this could be at risk if the situation continues to be so uncoordinated and contradictory.”

Liese has long been a vocal proponent of a European Health Union, while Member States have traditionally argued that health should remain a national competency. Asked if a European Health Union could now be more widely embraced, following the clear evidence that viruses and other health threats do not stop at borders, Liese says, “We in Europe are not allowed to dictate how Member States finance or organise their hospitals, what kind of treatment is compensated and what is not. This is national politics and I don’t want to interfere with that. But there are other issues that have already been subject to European politics for a long time. For example, every vaccine that will be approved in the European market has to be approved under European law, most of them by the European Medicines Agency (EMA). All the companies that are trying to develop a vaccine against COVID-19 are talking to EMA, not to the national authorities. The crisis has shown us that we need to address many more issues at European level.”

The latest DeutschlandTrend survey has highlighted the fact that the vast majority of Germans are satisfied with the government’s response to the Coronavirus crisis. Asked if the EU can learn any lessons from Germany’s response to the pandemic, Liese says that the country’s success in containing the virus is “mainly due to the role of Angela Merkel - she’s a scientist.”

“Autumn and winter are coming, and the virus spreads more easily in closed rooms - 18 times more easily than if you are outside - but I do believe that at the end of this year or the beginning of next year, we will have the first vaccines available”

He adds, “She was able to explain the threat of COVID-19 in a very calm way, so no dramatic speeches, but very clear, scientific-based information. People trusted her and that’s the reason why the German government is more popular now. I think in a way, we were lucky. We had the opportunity to prepare ourselves better than Italy and Spain, because obviously the virus came later to Germany. We managed to control a very small outbreak, but that was a warning to everybody. Having seen the dramatic scenes in Italy, we could react much faster. That’s why we were lucky, but also the German government managed the crisis rather well through a balanced approach.”

Looking forward, Liese says we need to be disciplined during the next six to eight months. “Because autumn and winter are coming, and the virus spreads more easily in closed rooms - 18 times more easily than if you are outside. That means it will become more difficult during autumn and winter, but I do believe that at the end of this year or the beginning of next, we will have the first vaccines available.”

Read the most recent articles written by Lorna Hutchinson - Brexit deadlock ends as EU and UK return to negotiating table

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