Influential Merkel begins long goodbye
Europe’s dominant politician, Angela Merkel, on Friday heads to the UK to begin a series of foreign farewells as she seeks to consolidate her legacy amid one of the most fluid political and economic landscapes in decades.
After more than 15 years in office, Merkel may now have fewer than 15 weeks left as chancellor (including as a post-ballot “caretaker” while a new coalition forms), with Germany’s Bundestag election taking place in September. However, despite the narrowing window of opportunity, she has key goals she wants to try to achieve; building on the role she has played on the international stage for the last decade and a half, which has cemented her status as the most important political leader in continental Europe.
To put her longevity into perspective, four US presidents (George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden) and five UK prime ministers (Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson) have served during her long tenure. By the end of her fourth term this autumn, the only person to have been chancellor for longer will be Otto von Bismarck, who served for almost two decades from 1871-90 during a period in which he was a dominant force in European affairs, having previously helped drive the unification of Germany. Merkel believes that post-pandemic Europe and the wider world is now, a century and a half later, at another critical juncture — hence her desire to consolidate her political legacy.
Her first pit stop is the UK, where she will meet with Prime Minister Boris Johnson. It won’t only be the future of bilateral ties on the agenda, but also the UK-hosted COP26 climate summit in November and the search for a potential resolution to vexed post-Brexit issues, especially the Northern Ireland Protocol.
But Merkel’s geographical horizons in her remaining weeks in office are not limited to Europe. On July 15, she will make a high-profile visit to the US to meet Biden and discuss a range of issues, including promoting economic prosperity and international security in the post-pandemic world.
German-US ties are in a much stronger place under Biden than they were during Trump’s presidency. This is especially so as wider US-EU issues, such as the near-17-year dispute over government subsidies to Airbus and Boeing, may now be on the cusp of resolution. However, there are also tensions, including over the future of the West’s relationship with Russia. Here, there is a US-German standoff over the $11 billion Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which is more than 90 percent complete and will soon start delivering Russian gas to Europe. The US last month waived sanctions on the company behind the pipeline, offering three more months to try to resolve the dispute.
Germany and some allies are pushing for the pipeline’s speedy completion, despite sustained US opposition. Biden fears Moscow could use Nord Stream 2, a 1,230-km pipeline that will double the capacity of the existing undersea route from Russian fields to Europe, as leverage to weaken EU states by increasing their energy dependency on the Kremlin.
Another point of tension between Biden and Merkel is a US-proposed global intellectual property rights waiver that Washington believes will get vaccines out to the developing world faster. Germany is at the vanguard of EU resistance to this plan and insists such a measure would do little or anything to boost vaccine supply.
Merkel believes post-pandemic Europe is at a critical juncture — hence her desire to consolidate her political legacy.
With much to play for in the coming weeks, any new deals that Merkel brokers will add to the legacy of her final year, which has seen her shepherd a wide range of pan-European deals, including when Germany held the presidency of the EU Council in the second half of 2020. She oversaw a historic European recovery fund to respond to the coronavirus crisis, plus a new long-term EU budget and a post-Brexit UK-EU trade deal, all of which will shape the continent well into the 2020s.
Even though the €1 trillion ($1.19 trillion) EU budget and €750 billion coronavirus recovery fund were both primarily economic in nature, they represented a major political milestone in the postwar history of European integration. The historic package deal Merkel helped broker was a milestone not just because of the mammoth size of the overall agreement, but also because, for the first time ever, EU leaders committed, in the coronavirus recovery package element, to the principle of mutualized debt as a funding tool. This could pave the way for greater future EU supranational powers of taxation and a more politically federalized continent. There was even talk last year of a “Hamiltonian moment” for Brussels, in reference to Alexander Hamilton, the first treasury secretary of the newly created US, who in 1790 convinced Congress of the benefits of common debt.
This exemplifies the historic nature of Merkel’s period in office, which has seen her preponderant in Europe for an extraordinarily long time. While she has a significant number of critics, domestically and internationally, few dispute that her achievements make her one of the most important European leaders in the postwar era.
- Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.