Angela Merkel bids foreign farewells after 15 years in office

EUROPE'S dominant politician Angela Merkel begins on Friday, in the United Kingdom, a series of foreign farewells as she seeks to consolidate her legacy amid one of the most fluid political and economic landscapes in decades.

Fifteen years into office, Dr Merkel has potentially less than 15 weeks left as Chancellor (including as a post-ballot "caretaker" as a new coalition forms) with Germany's general election closing in this autumn. However, despite the narrowing window of time, she has key remaining goals to try to deliver, building from the role she has played the last decade and a half on the international stage helping Europe navigate the political and economic tumult from the euro zone economic crisis, to migration challenges more recently.

The series of forthcoming foreign forays will cap off an extraordinary last year for Dr Merkel which has cemented her status as the most important political leader in continental Europe.

To put her longevity, in office since 2005, into wider perspective, four US presidents (George Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden), four French presidents (Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, Francois Hollande and Emmanuel Macron), and five UK prime ministers (Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson) have already served during her long tenure. And Dr Merkel has also already exceeded, long ago, the previous record of Margaret Thatcher as Europe's longest serving female leader which was 11 years.

By the end of her fourth term this autumn, she will have matched Helmut Kohl's years of office. Indeed, she will only sit behind Otto von Bismarck in length of tenure, who served for almost two decades from 1871 to 1890 during a period in which he was a dominant force in European affairs having helped previously drive the unification of Germany.

Dr Merkel believes that Europe and the wider world is now, a century and a half later, at another critical juncture, post-pandemic, hence her desire to consolidate her political legacy. Her first pit stop on Friday is the United Kingdom where she will meet Mr Johnson. Top of the agenda will not just be the future of UK-German ties but also the UK-hosted COP26 climate summit in November; and seeking potential resolution to vexed post-Brexit issues, especially the Northern Ireland Protocol.

While both Dr Merkel and Mr Johnson want to leave their relationship on good terms, there will also be tensions over the push that she is making to have a de facto EU ban on UK tourists this summer. What she is concerned about is the surge in Covid-19 cases in the United Kingdom from the proliferation of the Delta variant, which is more prevalent in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland than continental Europe.

Dr Merkel's geographical horizons in her remaining weeks of office, however, are not just restricted to Europe. On July 15, she will also make a high-profile visit to the United States to meet Mr Biden to 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 President Biden than they were during Mr Trump's presidency. This is especially so as wider US-EU issues, such as the nearly 17-year-old 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 US$11 billion Nord Stream 2 pipeline, now more than 90 per cent complete, that will deliver Russian gas to Europe. The United States waived sanctions in May on the company behind the pipeline, Russian state energy firm Gazprom, giving three more months to try to resolve the dispute.

STILL MUCH TO PLAY FOR

Germany and some allies are pushing for the pipeline's speedy completion, despite sustained US opposition. Mr Biden fears that Moscow could use the Nord Stream 2, a 764-mile (1,230km) pipeline that will double the capacity of the existing undersea route from Russian fields to Europe, as leverage to weaken EU states by increasing dependency on the Kremlin. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken highlighted this recently when he said that "the pipeline is a bad idea, bad for Europe, bad for the United States, ultimately it is in contradiction to the EU's own security goals... It has the potential to undermine the interests of Ukraine, Poland and a number of close partners and allies".

Another point of tension between Mr Biden and Dr Merkel is over a US-proposed global intellectual property rights waiver, which Washington believes will get vaccines out faster to the developing world. Germany is at the vanguard of EU resistance to this plan, however, and insists such a measure would do little or anything to boost vaccine supply.

With much to play for in the coming weeks, any new deals that Dr 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 in the second half of 2020. This included a historic European recovery fund to respond to the Covid crisis; plus a new EU long-term budget for the 2020s; and a post-Brexit UK-EU trade deal, all of which will shape the continent well into the 2020s.

Take the example of the 1 trillion euros (S$1.59 trillion) long-term EU budget, and 750 billion euros coronavirus recovery fund. While these matters are primarily economic in nature, they represent a major political milestone in the post-war history of European integration.

The historic package deal which Dr Merkel helped broker is a milestone not just because of the mammoth size of the overall agreement, but also, for the first time ever, EU leaders committed for the pandemic recovery package element to the principle of mutualised debt as a funding tool, potentially paving the way for greater, future EU supranational powers of taxation and a more politically federalised continent. There was even talk last year about a "Hamilton moment" for Brussels in reference to Alexander Hamilton, the Treasury Secretary for the then-newly created United States of America, who convinced Congress in 1790 of the benefits of common debt.

This exemplifies the historic nature of Dr Merkel's period in office which has seen her preponderant now for an extraordinarily long time. While she has a significant number of critics, domestically and broader, few dispute that her collective achievements make her one of the most important European leaders in the post-war era.

  • The writer is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.

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