Merkel visits White House in swan song

Washington (AFP) –


Chancellor Angela Merkel visits the White House in her diplomatic swan song Thursday, underlining how important the veteran German leader has been to the transatlantic relationship, but also highlighting the unanswered questions she leaves behind.

Merkel, who has dealt with four US presidents and is stepping down later this year, was meeting President Joe Biden for an official working visit.

Starting with a breakfast at Vice President Kamala Harris's residence, before switching to the White House for one-on-one talks with Biden, and then an early dinner, the day was designed to "convey gratitude," a senior Biden administration official said.

The German leader, who said she was "shocked" by deadly flooding back home, was the first European leader invited by Biden to Washington, as well as the first foreign leader to be hosted by Harris at her residence.

Greeting Merkel at the vice presidential residence, Harris called her guest's career "extraordinary."

While it was not clear whether breakfast would tend more to Harris' California roots or feature a German flavor, a weighty discussion menu awaited the two women.

"The vice president will discuss how democracies around the world are in peril," Harris' office said, with challenges from China and Russia, gender inequality and climate crisis also high on the list.

The White House insists this is "very much a working visit," rather than a ceremonial farewell for the woman widely seen as Europe's steadiest leader during almost 16 years at the helm of the continent's biggest economy.

Merkel and Biden will discuss climate change, Covid-19 vaccine distribution, and the future of Afghanistan now that US, German and other foreign troops are leaving, the administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said.

Jihadist threats in Africa's Sahel region are on the agenda. And reflecting Germany's pivotal role in NATO and transatlantic security, the two leaders were also set to discuss Russian "cyberattacks and territorial aggression," Ukraine's struggle against Russia and "countering China's rising influence."

- Unresolved issues -

However, Merkel is now out of time for resolving some of the pressing issues facing Europe and the United States.

These include the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline which is set to funnel Russian natural gas to Germany.

Not only will it bypass Ukraine, leading to fears that Russia is deliberately weakening its neighbor's economy, but the project underscores European energy dependency on an increasingly hostile Moscow.

Despite strong criticism of the pipeline, Biden in May waived key US sanctions on Nord Stream 2 after concluding that it was too late to stop the project and that it was better to seek cooperation with Germany.

Biden "will raise his long standing concerns" on Thursday, the administration official said, but clearly there is little in the way of movement that can be expected.

Biden has invited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to the White House later this summer.

However, Nord Stream 2 is one of the reasons why Zelensky is nervous about how much he can count on European support against the far more powerful Russians.

On the flip side, Germany's next leaders will no longer be sure that whoever holds power in the United States after Biden won't revert to the extraordinary disruption of the Donald Trump era.

"Trump's raging hostility forced Germany to examine the unhealthy aspects of its dependency on America," wrote Constanze Stelzenmuller, from the Brookings Institution think tank, in the Financial Times.