WASHINGTON – President Biden and German Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed their shared values on Thursday as a sign that the US-European alliance remained strong after the tensions of the Trump era, despite both admitting the differences in a major Russian pipeline and how to best approach to China.
During the White House meetings, Mr Biden’s agenda included several of his most pressing geopolitical priorities, such as curbing Chinese influence, curbing Russian aggression and lifting intellectual property restrictions on coronavirus vaccine manufacturers.
While there were no apparent breakthroughs, the visit was a way to show a unified front after President Donald J. Trump’s hostile exchanges with Ms. Merkel over NATO contributions, trade and multilateralism severely disrupted ties. The meeting will also take place before the Chancellor’s term of office expires and a new German government will be sworn in after the elections on September 26th.
“Good friends may disagree,” said Biden, who appeared next to Ms. Merkel at a press conference in the East Room after the meeting.
For the most part, the trip appeared to be a triumph of the personal over politics. Mr Biden joked that Ms. Merkel, who has worked with four US presidents, “knows the Oval Office as well as I do”. The Chancellor referred to the President several times as “Dear Joe” when she praised the friendly relationship that has lasted since his time in the Senate. But the warmth couldn’t hide the fact that neither leader had turned away from their main disagreements.
Mr Biden said he had raised the controversial issue of the $ 11 billion Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a natural gas pipeline that is being built between Germany and Russia and is expected to be completed by the end of the year. The president and his predecessors attacked the project only as a means of coercion against Ukraine and other allies.
“We have come to different assessments,” said Merkel about the project.
Mr Biden said the two agreed that they “are united in our belief that Russia should not be able to use energy as a weapon”.
The president waived congressional sanctions against the Russian company that built the pipeline and its German chairman that year, practically admitting that an attempt to halt the project was not worth the expected cost to German-American relations was.
Ms. Merkel kept her comments on fighting China nonspecific, whose influence Biden believes poses an existential threat to American democracy.
“There is great agreement that China is our competitor in many areas,” said the Chancellor, taking care not to come into conflict with Germany’s largest trading partner. She added that “trade with China must be based on the assumption that we are on a level playing field”.
The two leaders also signaled that they will remain separate in their approach to containing the pandemic. Ms. Merkel has not committed to revoking patents on coronavirus vaccines, and Mr Biden has not raised the issue in front of reporters. Ms. Merkel said she asked the president if his government would lift a travel ban on Europeans, but he had not made a commitment to lift it.
“I raised the issue,” said the Chancellor, “and got the same answer that the President gave you: the Covid team is looking into the matter.”
Nevertheless, the heads of state and government repeatedly emphasized their one-on-one relationship in their public appearances, a sharp deviation from Ms. Merkel’s frosty and stilted interactions with Mr. Trump, who slandered her as “prisoners of Russia”. When asked to compare Mr. Biden’s management style with that of his predecessor, the Chancellor was characteristically reserved and emphasized that she and Mr. Biden had a “very friendly exchange”.
“We are not just partners and allies,” said Merkel, “but are very close friends.”
At the start of the event, the President expressed his condolences to the Germans for the loss of life and property caused by the recent floods. He thanked the Chancellor for “an exemplary life with pioneering services for Germany”.
Mr Biden has been asked to deal with cases of diplomatic unrest closer to his home, including protests in Cuba and civil unrest following the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse. He told a reporter that other than sending marines to guard the US embassy, he would not send any American troops there.
Addressing a wave of demonstrations across Cuba, Mr. Biden accused his government of being a “failed state” that “oppresses its citizens” and said he would change the rules against payments Americans can make to their Cuban relatives, not pick it up because he couldn’t be sure the government wouldn’t take it.
“I wouldn’t do that now,” he said, “because the fact is that the regime would most likely confiscate these transfers or large chunks.”
The president became irritated when asked about his top domestic economic priorities. When asked if he was confident that a $ 3.5 trillion budget created by the Democrats would be enough to pass with every Democratic Senator on board, Mr Biden blamed the news media as preemptively advising that the plan, along with negotiating an infrastructure deal, was on the way to failure.
“I am very confident that everything will work out perfectly,” he said dryly. “I’ve seen and heard the press so far have declared my initiative dead. I don’t think it’s dead. I think it’s still alive. “
Aside from sensitive political issues, Merkel’s visit before the end of her term in office was a kind of diplomatic victory round. She started her day with a cheese soufflé breakfast with Vice President Kamala Harris.
Later in the day, the Chancellor received an honorary doctorate from Johns Hopkins University and added to her collection of degrees from Harvard and Stanford. Arrived at the White House, Ms. Merkel and the President exchanged compliments in the Oval Office.
The exchange was not particularly warm, but a lot more collegial than at Merkel’s previous meeting in the Oval Office. When she asked Mr. Trump in 2017, “Would you like to have a handshake?” Mr. Trump apparently not.
Just as Ms. Merkel reacted mildly to Mr. Trump for years, she was not always overzealous to follow Mr. Biden’s requests to restore normality in American-German relations. Speaking of US relations during this year’s virtual Munich security conference, she said that “our interests will not always converge”.
At the time of Thursday’s press conference, Mr Biden and Mrs Merkel seemed more interested in continuing their farewell party than discussing what parted them.
After the press conference, they attended dinner with longtime allies, including Hillary Clinton. California minority representative Kevin McCarthy was also slated to visit Mr. Trump at his New Jersey golf club after traveling earlier in the day.
After the two leaders asked questions, Mr. Biden distracted Ms. Merkel from reporters.
“If we don’t leave immediately,” he said to her, “we’ll miss dinner.”
Glenn Thrush contributed to the coverage.