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Attending her last G-7, Merkel has had enough of US leadership

Attending her last G-7, Merkel has had enough of US leadership

6 min. 10.06.2021 From our online archive
German leader's final such summit, and Joe Biden's first, is marked by tensions between Europe and the US
German Chancellor Angela Merkel will leave her position later this year
German Chancellor Angela Merkel will leave her position later this year
Photo credit: AFP

As Angela Merkel prepares for her final Group of Seven meeting and Joe Biden for his first as president, their differences amount to more than simply summit experience.

Merkel is part of a heavyweight European contingent to the G-7 on England’s southwest coast that is emerging from the pandemic unusually united and determined to carve out a bigger global role on a par with its US ally.

For the chancellor, Emmanuel Macron of France and Italy’s Mario Draghi, as well as European Union leaders that get a seat at the table, the relief is genuine at the prospect of dealing with Biden rather than Donald Trump. Yet their high hopes for the summit don’t diminish a growing sense that collectively they need to get out from under America’s shadow and influence policy in Washington rather than meekly accept the US line.

An impending deal to shelve outstanding EU-US trade conflicts shows the mutual desire to work together. However, there is annoyance in Berlin, Paris and Brussels at Biden’s call to arms to save the world from Covid-19, after the U.S. reserved its vaccines for Americans while Europe took domestic flak for exporting shots globally - some 300 million since January - including to fellow G-7 members Canada and Japan.

For Europe the pandemic illustrates the need to get its point across to Washington. It’s a search for greater influence that appears in tune with public opinion, with surveys this week suggesting that transatlantic rifts persist after Trump. The G-7 is planning to pledge 1 billion new doses over the next year, according to a draft communique. The Biden administration plans to buy 500 million Pfizer-BioNTech doses to share.

The G-7 will show the world “that the alliance and their leaders are back after Trump and the pandemic to tackle global problems,” said Peter Beyer, the German government’s transatlantic coordinator. Still, he said, “it’s not just about returning to the old Western alliance, but rather about forging a new West.”

Europe's chance

As the president flies in for the G-7, a NATO summit, EU-US talks, then a meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, there is a sense in Europe of a chance to advance its cause. Brussels especially is in an emboldened mood, according to two EU officials, who cited the bloc’s vaccination programme yielding results, the euro-area economy picking up strongly, and the imminent arrival of massive EU pandemic stimulus.

More than just confidence, Europe’s leaders have a degree of certitude that they’ve been proven correct on matters from climate to Iran and have a right to make their views heard. Four years of Trump created a lot of mistrust, but also a conviction that Europe should be less submissive to America, said one person working on the EU-US summit.

“The European Union can be the front-runner when it comes to the ideas for the world,” European Council President Charles Michel, who will attend the G-7, said in an interview this week with Bloomberg and a small group of other news outlets. Citing summit topics from climate action to taxation and vaccine certificates, he said that the EU has more influence than it’s given credit for, and “sometimes in Europe we forget that.”

That differs from the Biden administration’s emphasis on a post-Trump return to American leadership.

The EU is hoping for a better relationship with US President Joe Biden, who took office in January
The EU is hoping for a better relationship with US President Joe Biden, who took office in January

“Whether it is ending the Covid-19 pandemic everywhere, meeting the demands of an accelerating climate crisis, or confronting the harmful activities of the governments of China and Russia, the United States must lead the world from a position of strength,” Biden said in an op-ed published in the Washington Post on Sunday.

European officials talk of disappointment that Biden’s policies bear some hallmarks of Trump’s America First stance. The EU raised concerns with the US about Biden’s surprise withdrawal from Afghanistan, where several member states including Germany have troops, according to people familiar with the discussions. One official said that the new administration seems to bank on goodwill simply because Biden is not Trump.

Disappointment to date

“We expected more change with Biden,” said Francoise Nicolas, director of the Center for Asia Studies at the French Institute of International Relations in Paris.

Spurring Europe on is the realisation that there is a small window for its biggest hitters to advance their common interests. Macron faces a bruising election campaign ahead of next year’s presidential election, while Draghi, the former European Central Bank chief appointed Italy’s technocratic leader, is unlikely to serve beyond 2023.

Most pressing of all, Merkel isn’t standing in September’s German election, meaning this is her G-7 swansong. She’s not about to take a back seat, though, and will push for a clear signal to both Minsk and Moscow over recent events in Belarus and Russia’s involvement, according to a senior German government official with knowledge of her thinking.

Disputes linger with the US on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, a point of contention taken up by Trump and maintained under Biden. A delegation from Berlin met with National Security adviser Jake Sullivan in Washington last week but little progress was made. Merkel fundamentally sees it as an issue for Germany and Europe alone, according to a separate German official.

Trump made no secret of his disdain for the EU, NATO and for Merkel personally. As seen from Berlin, although the Trump years are over, the lesson remains that Europe will have to stand on its own feet, the first German official said. It’s on that basis that Merkel will now deal with Biden.

The G-7 is a reminder to Merkel of the need for joint action to deal with the world’s most intractable problems: at her first summit, in 2006 in St. Petersburg, leaders discussed Israel’s conflict with Gaza, Iran’s nuclear program and climate change, topics that could just as easily be on the agenda this weekend.

A constant presence

Biden will be her fourth US president since then; in that time she has worked with two Canadian premiers, three Japanese prime ministers, four French presidents, five British leaders and 10 Italians.

One constant throughout has been Putin - a Russian speaker, Merkel holds regular calls with the president to badger him on Ukraine, and Biden will surely tap her knowledge before his meeting with Putin in Geneva. The other is that she was the only woman leader back in 2006; she will be again at this G-7.

Certainly, there is enthusiasm over the summit in Cornwall. Germany, France and Italy all want to strengthen cooperation with Washington. The US has signalled its backing for the EU in its Brexit standoff with the UK, while Brussels is set to support the US push for a renewed investigation of the origins of Covid-19.

For all the differences among G-7 leaders, the stars may be aligning for joint action, which is after all Europe’s forte.

“They all want to leave their mark and actually get something done,” said Ifri’s Nicolas.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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