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German Chancellor Angela Merkel ended her 107th — and almost certainly final — meeting of the European Council on Friday in quintessential Merkel style.
She methodically walked reporters through the details of the two-day summit of EU leaders, hewed carefully to a centrist, nonconfrontational line in discussing divisive issues and difficult personalities, and patiently fielded questions about the ups and downs of her 16 years in office as she nears retirement.
And when it came to the inevitable pondering of the European universe without Angela Merkel, she was predictably stoic, politely declining to engage in a hypothetical question about potentially being asked to return to save the EU from falling apart. But she also noted, with her unshakeable calm, that there were ample reasons for concern, and that her successor — almost certain to be Social Democrat Olaf Scholz — will face “impressive challenges.”
At her closing news conference, Merkel, age 67, began by joking, with just a little smile, that her colleagues had treated her to one last, lengthy summit (though without an all-nighter, it was not remotely close to the longest such meeting she has attended).
“There was a great interest in letting me have a long final Council,” she said matter-of-factly. “We debated comprehensively.”
Merkel, who became the first woman chancellor of Germany in 2005, seemed quite content describing the leaders’ complicated discussions about how to address a recent spike in energy prices, and about the state of the COVID-19 vaccination program and efforts to donate vaccines to other countries, both of which she said were going well.
“Despite all the difficulties we encountered,” Merkel said, “there are some things I think we can be very proud of.”
But she was not at all swept up in any of the hoo-ha that others, including Council President Charles Michel, tried to make about her presumably final summit.
Michel, in a brief diversion from the work program on Friday morning, delivered remarks about Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, who was also attending his last summit, and about Merkel. And he presented them with a new and unusual gift for their service: a glass “artistic impression” of the Council’s Europa Building and its trademark “lantern” interior, which is often called the Space Egg.
The glass totem was created by Maxim Duterre, a Dutch-French designer and artist based in Eindhoven, and officials said Michel intended to start a new tradition by bestowing it upon all departing Council members. (Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš stands to be the next leader to receive one in December.)
While Michel praised Löfven for his “strong and reassuring presence,” he was much more effusive in describing Merkel, long the most influential of the EU’s heads of state and government. And he started by pleading with her not to be angry over the fuss being made in her honor.
“I know you do not like surprises or celebrations,” Michel said. “I hope you will not be angry for this ceremony at your last EUCO.”
He went on to say, “You are a monument,” adding, “EUCO without Angela is like Rome without the Vatican or Paris without the Eiffel Tower.”
Michel cited her “extreme sobriety and simplicity,” and added, “This is a very powerful seduction weapon.”
In addition to a video montage showing Merkel at Council summits over the years, there was a brief video message from former U.S. President Barack Obama, who also noted that Merkel wouldn’t be enjoying the attention.
“It is a testament to your character that you probably enjoy working at a meeting of the European Council more than being the center of attention like this,” Obama said.
“I was happy to become your friend as I watched you draw on good humor, wise pragmatism and an unrelenting moral compass in making hard decisions over many years,” Obama said, adding toward the end of his message: “Thanks to you, the center has held through many storms.”
Call for compromise
For her own part, Merkel talked reporters through the latest one of those storms: a fight between Brussels and Poland over rule of law, that she seemed to suggest was being overblown.
She urged compromise and expressed sympathy for newer EU member countries that were forced to join a club already formed without having input into all of its rules and requirements.
“There might be the idea or the feeling that those who have joined at a later point find themselves in the position where they have to accept something that has been there when they have joined and they are not entitled to call it into question,” Merkel said, while quickly adding that all EU countries are bound to uphold the bloc’s treaties.
But then she was quickly back to compromise. “So I think discussions ought to be possible,” she said.
Perhaps in deference to Merkel’s conciliatory line, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Friday appeared to back away from recent suggestions that she might soon trigger a new budgetary enforcement mechanism that could cut off some funds to Poland.
The Commission chief said following the summit that “the European Court of Justice has to judge on a request from Hungary and Poland, whether this conditionality mechanism is legally sound” and that “no measures will be taken before the ruling.”
Von der Leyen noted that in the meantime “we can send letters, ask for information or questions that are necessary to be asked.”
Her stance contrasts with remarks less than a week ago by Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders. Asked by Bloomberg TV when the conditionality mechanism would be triggered, he had said: “It’s a question of days or weeks, maximum.”
When asked if other leaders, including combative Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, showed her the same respect that she showed them, Merkel answered with a wry version of “sort of.”
“Well, I do hope that the respect is something that everyone shows and expresses, of course we have got different ways of expressing it,” she said. “We all know Viktor Orbán. He is undoubtedly to be considered one of the more self-confident politicians of the European Union. But I trust that everybody knows that the European Union is an asset.”
Merkel expressed particular satisfaction that leaders had agreed on conclusions related to migration policy following a discussion on Friday that also dealt with the situation on the border of Belarus, where migrants have been encouraged by the government of Alexander Lukashenko to cross illegally into the EU.
In typical Brussels fashion, the heads of state and government agreed on a text that for some diplomats meant a nod to those 12 countries (from Greece to Lithuania) that have asked for EU funds to be used to build border fences. But other diplomats said the same text means that no fences can be built with EU funds.
In the end, it was von der Leyen, a disciple of Merkel’s, who clarified the point in her own news conference when she said she was “very clear” that there is a longstanding agreement in the Commission and with the European Parliament “that there will be no funding of barbed wire and walls.”
Merkel for her part said: “It’s good that we are able to agree and find a conclusion today.”
When asked about those who criticize her, Merkel said that was their right in democratic societies that enjoy freedom of speech. “We live in free societies so everyone is entitled to express his or her criticism. I, for one, try to help solve these problems. If others take a different view of this, I have to accept this fact,” she said.
As for the possibility of being called on to help prevent the EU from breaking up in the future, she said, “Generally speaking, I am not happy to respond to hypothetical questions. I trust and am confident that we will not get to such a point.”
Lili Bayer and Andrew Gray contributed reporting.