Angela Merkel gears up for last-ditch attempt to shape EU as bloc faces huge challenges

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Germany is due to take over the Presidency of the European Council in July for the first time in 13 years – but the pandemic has dramatically changed the landscape, and piled the pressure on Mrs Merkel, 65, who is scheduled to step down as Chancellor next year. The rotating Presidency – currently held by Croatia – will switch to Germany on July 1, with a total of 17 ministerial meetings planned between July and October involving leaders from across the bloc, as well as the EU-China summit which had been planned for Leipzig in September.

For Mrs Merkel, it represents an opportunity at a crucial time, with the UK due to complete the process of Brexit on December 31.

However, in the classified dispatch to Berlin, leaked to German magazine Der Spiegel, Mr Clauss warned: “The first experiences with the new reality show that our presidency will no longer be able to take place in the planned way.

“The success of our presidency will be measured against this.

“From now on, the focus will be on the ability of the European institutions to act, crisis management, exit and reconstruction – possibly maintaining the EU integration itself.

“The success of our presidency will be measured against this.”

Mr Clauss said other issues would “inevitably be overlaid or completely receded” by the coronavirus response, predicting the EU’s ability to function would “remain broadly limited until further notice”.

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Mrs Merkel, who has been German Chancellor since 2005, is under increasing pressure as the extent of the economic damage wrought by the pandemic becomes apparent.

Speaking today about the latest survey conducted by the German Chamber of Commerce and Industry, President Eric Schweitzer predicted a 10 percent contraction in Germany’s economy.

He said: “Based on our survey results, we currently have to assume a decline in gross domestic product in the double-digit percentage range.

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“When we look around the world, we now feel all the signs of a global economic crisis.”

Mrs Merkel has also had to contend with persistent rumours about her health after a spate of episodes in which she visibly shook in public, with some attributing it to an underlying medical condition.

Speaking last year, she said: “I understand questions about my health, and I have already given an answer to this.

“It is important that I commit myself to the responsibility of acting as head of government.

“I just would say you have known me for some time and I can perform this role.

“I will finish my political work in 2021, but I hope that life will continue after that, and I would like it to continue in a healthy way.”

As for coronavirus, she used a video message to a World Health Organization event yesterday to suggest the world would overcome the pandemic more quickly if it works together to tackle the virus fallout.

She added: “The World Health Organization is the legitimate, global institution where all the threads come together. Because that is the case we have to keep looking at how we can further improve its functioning.”

Stressing that no country could tackle the coronavirus alone, she added: “I am convinced we will overcome the pandemic.

“The more we work together internationally, the quicker we will achieve this.”

(Additional reporting by Monika Pallenberg)

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