Stability in US-Germany ties key as Merkel visits White House

Stability in US-Germany ties key as Merkel visits White House

Stability in US-Germany ties key as Merkel visits White House
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) and US President Joe Biden (2nd L) at the beginning of a meeting on the sidelines of the G7 summit. (File/AFP)
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Angela Merkel visits Washington on Thursday for the last time in her long chancellorship, with US-German ties at a historic post-Trump, post-Brexit pivot point.

The mood music when she meets President Joe Biden will be much warmer than on her previous trips over the last half-decade to see Donald Trump, but one big issue threatens full reconciliation between the two powers. That is the $11 billion Nord Stream 2 pipeline that the US president sees as an obstacle in his goal of reunifying the West in the post-Trump era, given the different views it masks about the future relationship between the NATO/G7 alliance and Russia.

There are no signs of an easy resolution to the US-German standoff over the pipeline, which is more than 90 percent complete and will soon double the capacity of the existing undersea gas transportation route from Russia to Europe. Germany continues to push for the project’s speedy completion. The US in May waived sanctions on the company behind the pipeline, Russian state energy firm Gazprom, meaning there is now about two more months left to try and resolve the dispute before the German elections in September. While the issue may seem a parochial business one, Biden (and indeed Trump before him) sees it in geopolitical terms, fearing that Moscow could use the 1,230-km pipeline as leverage to weaken EU states by increasing their dependency on the Kremlin.

However, the Nord Stream issue is not the only one that divides the two leaders. Another point of tension is the US-proposed global intellectual property (IP) rights waiver that Washington believes will get coronavirus disease vaccines to the developing world quicker. Germany is at the vanguard of international resistance to this plan and insists such a measure will do little, if anything, to boost vaccine supply.

With neither side likely to back down on Nord Stream, the IP issue could become a long-running bilateral sore. That said, Biden was encouraged last month by comments from the candidate for chancellor from Merkel’s own Christian Democratic Union party, Armin Laschet, who said Germany could stop gas flowing through the pipeline if Moscow breaks the terms of the arrangement or uses it to put pressure on Ukraine.

The best that Biden and Merkel can probably hope for is to agree to disagree on Nord Stream and to seek an upside from the wider upturn in bilateral ties.

Andrew Hammond

It is not just Laschet who is making hawkish campaign noises on Nord Stream. Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, the chancellor candidate for the center-left Social Democratic Party, has said: “Anything that impinges on gas transit and Ukraine’s security has consequences for potential transit through the completed pipeline.” Moreover, Annalena Baerbock, the candidate for the Greens, which has led some national polls this year, has commented: “Imagine a winter in Europe… (when) we won’t be able to say ‘Now we don’t have any more gas.’ Putin wants to destabilize not only Ukraine but us as Europeans.”

At this week’s summit, the best that Biden and Merkel can probably hope for is to agree to disagree on Nord Stream and to seek an upside from the wider upturn in bilateral ties. Biden has dialed down, in public at least, on several long-standing issues in the bilateral relationship, especially trade and defense spending, which Trump prioritized. On trade, for instance, Trump had called Germany “very bad” because of its significant trade surplus, with exports greater than its imports, and he castigated Berlin’s failure to spend 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense spending — a key NATO goal.

These remain key issues for Biden too, but they are ultimately subservient to his broader strategic goal of reconsolidating the Western alliance. Here, the new US president may curse his luck that his term in office coincides with the end of Merkel’s, as she could have been a key player in enabling this mission.

She is now, alongside Helmut Kohl, who also served about 16 years in office, the longest-serving German leader since 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. While Merkel’s legacy is much different from that of Bismarck, she has also — for more than a decade — been perhaps the most important political leader in continental Europe.

So Biden will do all he can to stabilize the bilateral relationship before she leaves office this autumn. In the post-Brexit era, the US president sees Berlin and Paris as increasingly important anchor points in the transatlantic relationship. This will be clear again later this year, when Biden reaches out early to Merkel’s successor, especially on Nord Stream.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.
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