By Aamer Madhani, Alexandra Jaffe and Frank Jordans | Associated press
WASHINGTON – Welcoming Angela Merkel for the last time to the White House, President Joe Biden on Thursday renewed his concerns to the German Chancellor over a major near-completed gas pipeline connecting Russia to Germany, but said they agreed that Russia should not be allowed to use energy. as a weapon.
The pair discussed – although they made no apparent progress – disputes over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline during a largely friendly farewell visit for Merkel as she nears the end of a political career that spanned four US presidencies.
“On a personal note, I have to tell you that you will be missed at our summits,” Biden said as he stood alongside Merkel, the second incumbent chancellor in German history, at a press conference at the White House in the late afternoon. “I really will.”
Merkel, who had a notoriously difficult relationship with former President Donald Trump, showed her ease and familiarity with Biden, who has long been a fixture in international politics, repeatedly calling him “Dear Joe.”
When asked to compare her relationship with Biden to hers with Trump, Merkel remained a diplomat, saying only that it was in the best interests of any German chancellor to “work with every US president.” She added with a smile: “Today was a very friendly exchange.”
But despite their personal warmth, US-German relations are entering new territory as Merkel, who is not running for a new term in the September elections, nears her departure from office. There are concerns on both sides over how the two nations will negotiate growing disagreements.
The United States has long argued that the Nord Stream 2 project will threaten European energy security by increasing the continent’s dependence on Russian gas and allowing Russia to exert political pressure on vulnerable countries in the world. Eastern and Central Europe, in particular Ukraine. But Biden recently lifted sanctions against German entities involved in the project, a move that angered many members of Congress.
Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, in a letter to Biden Thursday ahead of the leaders’ meeting, expressed concerns that the pipeline is already having an economic impact on U.S. ally Ukraine. Rubio said Gazprom, the company that operates Nord Stream 2, “has already started reducing its use of gas pipelines in Ukraine” as the new gas pipeline comes to an end.
Merkel sought to downplay the differences and emphasize that the pipeline is in addition to Ukrainian pipelines – and not intended to replace them.
“Our idea is and remains that Ukraine remains a transit country for natural gas, that Ukraine, like any other country in the world, has the right to territorial sovereignty,” said Merkel. She added that Germany was ready to react to Moscow “if Russia does not respect this right of Ukraine which it has as a transit country”.
Merkel also raised concerns over COVID-19 travel restrictions preventing most Europeans from traveling to the United States.
Biden said he had brought in the head of his coronavirus task force to discuss the issue and that he expected to be able to offer a more definitive answer “within the next seven days” on when the restrictions could be relaxed.
Merkel started her day with a working breakfast with Vice President Kamala Harris, and Harris’s office said the two had a “very frank discussion.”
Back in Germany, Merkel’s country and neighboring Belgium faced the consequences of heavy flooding which left more than 60 dead and dozens missing.
“My sympathy goes out to the loved ones and to the dead and missing,” she said.
Officials in Washington and elsewhere are wondering what direction Germany might take after the September vote.
Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union leads the polls, but Green environmentalists and center-left Social Democrats are also vying to lead a future government. Although the three parties differ in many policy areas, all are committed to a strong transatlantic relationship.
Germany has close trade ties with China, but has also criticized Beijing’s human rights record. Merkel is keen to avoid a situation in which Germany, or the European Union, might be forced to choose sides between China and the United States.
Merkel insisted on the need to cooperate with China on global issues such as climate change and the coronavirus pandemic, even as President Trump accused Beijing of triggering the pandemic.
Still, Merkel stressed in her comments to reporters that she wanted Germany and the European Union to coordinate their policies towards China with Washington, including on issues such as labor rights, trade and cybersecurity.
“I think the foundations of our relationship with China should be based on the common values” of the United States and Germany, she said.
The humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders has urged Biden to lean on Merkel to drop her opposition to proposals to suspend vaccine patents. Merkel, a scientist by training, argued that the lifting of patents would not be effective and could harm future research and development efforts.
A group of Democratic lawmakers have called on Germany to lift its “blockade” of a waiver of intellectual property rights related to COVID-19 under global trade rules. Such a waiver, according to lawmakers, would help increase the production of effective vaccines around the world.
The Biden administration has expressed support for the waiver being discussed at the World Trade Organization, but White House officials did not anticipate that the differences would be resolved when Merkel visited.
Although there are points of tension, Biden seemed eager to say goodbye to Merkel.
He welcomes Merkel and her husband, as well as an array of current and past lawmakers and administration officials, to the White House for dinner Thursday night. The guest list includes Secretary of State Antony Blinken, as well as two of his predecessors – Hillary Clinton and Colin Powell.
Republican Senate and House leaders Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy will also be in attendance, along with other senior US and German officials.
Earlier Thursday, Harris hosted Merkel for breakfast at her residence on the grounds of the US Naval Observatory, congratulating her on her “extraordinary career.” Merkel in turn underlined the historic character of the Harris vice-presidency.
“I can only say that I, too, am delighted to have the opportunity to meet here the First Madam Vice President of the United States of America,” Merkel said before the two leaders entered into a meeting. residence to chat over a Gruyère soufflé breakfast. , seasonal fruits and cold meats.
Also on Thursday, Merkel received an honorary doctorate, her 18th, from Johns Hopkins University and spoke at the university’s School of Advanced International Studies.
Jordans reported from Berlin and Madhani from Chicago.