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Angela Merkel meets Joe Biden: The message is harmony

July 14, 2021

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is set to visit US President Joe Biden on July 15. The two leaders are keen to bolster ties between their countries. But there are also points of contention.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Joe Biden
Merkel and Biden are both veteran politicians

Henry Kissinger is rumored to have once asked: "Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?" The former United States secretary of state denies ever having posed this question. Regardless of whether Kissinger uttered it or not, in recent years, foreign policy figures in Washington have certainly known whom to call over pressing European issues: German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Indeed, Merkel has gained a reputation as a stable and respectable fixture in foreign affairs. She is also widely seen as an ardent advocate of liberty and human rights. With German general elections set for September 26, however, Merkel's 16-year-reign is ending soon, as she is not running for reelection.

Post-Trump renaissance for Washington-Berlin ties

Before her tenure is up, Merkel will be making one last visit to the US to meet with President Joe Biden in what will likely be her last major trip abroad. The two leaders are set to come face to face in the White House on July 15. Both nations are looking to bolster the trans-Atlantic bond after Biden's predecessor Donald Trump took the US on a unilateralist course, affronting allies all along the spectrum.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Donald Trump in 2019
Cold as ice: Merkel and Trump found little common ground during his four years in officeImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

The upcoming visit, therefore, will be all about strengthening trans-Atlantic ties. Merkel's trip is one of her few foreign visits since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Biden and Merkel will most likely discuss the ongoing risk posed by the coronavirus and its fallout. According to US government sources, they will also talk about the "threat of climate change, and promoting economic prosperity and international security based on our shared democratic values."

Will the US ease travel restrictions for Europeans?

"Angela Merkel is in the final stages of her tenure and as such her trip is partly a farewell visit," trans-Atlantic relations expert Markus Kaim of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) told DW. "The US is anxious about the political vacuum she will leave behind." 

Angela Merkel and Joe Biden at the 2009 Munich Security Conference
Merkel and Biden (seen here at the 2009 Munich Security Conference) have met many times over the yearsImage: Peter Kneffel/Epa/dpa/picture-alliance

With Merkel's days in power numbered, she has little scope to effect real political change. Kaim does not expect Merkel to push through any far-reaching policies but instead focus on smaller issues, such as easing US travel restrictions.

"Everyone is waiting for the US to open its border to travelers from the Schengen zone; these restrictions are not only bothering tourists but also hurting businesses," Kaim said. Lifting this travel ban, he added, would be a way for the US administration to give Merkel a sweet send-off.

Munich Security Conference

Challenges remain

Restoring US-German relations to what they once were is not without its challenges. The US, after all, is calling on Germany to increase its defense spending in line with NATO's 2% of GDP target; adopt a more proactive role in foreign crises; and show a willingness to engage militarily. US-German relations have also been strained over the almost-complete Nord Stream 2 pipeline in the Baltic Sea, which will pump Russian gas to Germany.

For Merkel, always the pragmatist, the pipeline is merely a means of doing business with Russia, nothing more. But Biden, like Trump before him, fears Nord Stream 2 will make Germany and Europe dependent on Russia, while weakening gas transit country Ukraine.

During the height of the pandemic, moreover, Germany and the US were pitted against each other as competitors in the quest to buy protective face masks and vaccine doses. 

The trans-Atlantic relationship, therefore, is far from harmonious.

Disagreements over China 

In a statement sent to DW, foreign policy expert Alexander Graf Lambsdorff of Germany's pro-business liberal party writes that Washington views Germany's government rather critically. This is due to "Merkel's business-focused approach to China, which angers Washington." In addition, he says, Germany is regarded as unreliable over its ties to Russia, with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline drawing cross-party condemnation in the US.

A ship working offshore in the Baltic Sea on the construction of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline
The Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline has been a sticking point for years in US-German relationsImage: Bernd Wuestneck/dpa/picture alliance

Presently, the US and Germany are not so much inseparable allies, but rather political partners with a set of shared interests. 

Yet ahead of the July 15 summit, it seems both sides are doing their best to downplay their differences. Most recently, Biden has been working to turn attention away from the Nord Stream 2 conflict. "There are mutual efforts to concentrate on other fields, and freeze disagreements over the rise of China," Kaim told DW. "I would interpret the Biden administration as striving to prevent escalation over this issue because it requires German cooperation elsewhere." 

The US is keen to know it can rely on an influential and stable European partner in times of geopolitical change. That is why, Lambsdorff says, the US greatly values a strong bilateral partnership with Germany.

"Trans-Atlantic ties are especially important to the new US administration," writes Lambsdorff. "Joe Biden is an important friend of Germany and Europe, and US Secretary of State [Antony] Blinken even grew up in France." Lambsdorff recognizes that China's rise poses the biggest strategic challenge of our times, yet also writes that the US will not neglect other ties over this.

Chinese People's Liberation Army soldiers marching in Beijing in May 2020
China's economic and military might is increasingly challenging US domination of the international orderImage: Getty Images/AFP/N. Asfouri

Flowery rhetoric ahead of visit

Merkel's meeting with Biden on July 15 will therefore most likely be an amicable affair, marked by friendly gestures and warm words. The era of Trumpian "America first" politics is giving away to Biden's "America is back" agenda.

That much was clear when Blinken made his first visit to Berlin in late June, assuring his hosts that "the US has no better friend in the world than Germany."

Ahead of Merkel's meeting, US rhetoric has certainly been flowery and supportive. 

In mid-June, when Biden and Merkel met on the sidelines of the G7 summit in England, the US leader was similarly full of praise for his German counterpart. In a video clip posted to his Instagram page, Biden says he had told other leaders that Merkel was the European leader he admires most.

US President Joe Biden, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and an advisor during the G7 summit in St. Ives, Cornwall, Britain, June 12, 2021
Biden and Merkel seem relaxed and amicable in Cornwall at the G7 summitImage: Guido Bergmann/Bundesregierung/REUTERS

He also took to Twitter, writing: "The ties between our two nations are stronger than ever — and I'm excited to welcome her to the White House next month to continue our work."

This article has been translated from German.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society, with an eye toward understanding this year's elections and beyond. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.

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