Merkel’s Message to Biden: Europe Wants a Seat at the Table, Too

When Joe Biden met with Vladimir Putin last month, the U.S. president set an example to Europe. Just not the example he might have anticipated.

As Biden held talks with his Russian counterpart in Geneva, Europe found itself in the surreal position of having to sit around and wait for a U.S. debrief on issues of direct relevance to the continent, according to a diplomat with knowledge of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s thinking.

One week later, Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron unveiled a joint proposal to hold European Union talks with the Russian president, a format abandoned in 2014 after Putin’s annexation of Crimea. Such a channel of communication with the Kremlin would allow the EU to confront Putin directly as a united bloc, the diplomat said.

Merkel’s Message to Biden: Europe Wants a Seat at the Table, Too

The initiative is part of Merkel’s bid to usher in a more muscular European foreign policy, particularly in relation to Russia and China -- even at the risk of diverging from the U.S. line. She and Macron held a joint call with Chinese President Xi Jinping last week in which they urged more direct flights to ease tensions. That’s after they spearheaded an EU-China investment deal in December that was criticized by members of the incoming Biden administration, and which is now stalled.

As she travels to Washington for perhaps the last time as chancellor to meet with Biden on Thursday, that approach presents Merkel at once with a dilemma and a potential legacy moment. Her challenge is to press Europe’s determination to stand on its own two feet while acknowledging Biden’s moves in areas from climate policy to human rights as those of a dependable ally.

Her success or failure may determine transatlantic relations on issues from trade to taxes, and shape Europe’s $700 billion economic ties with China. Still, it’s a gamble that doesn’t enjoy full support in Europe let alone in Washington.

“I’m guessing she may think Europe needs to hedge against a return of Trumpism,” said Constanze Stelzenmueller, holder of the Fritz Stern Chair on Germany and transatlantic relations at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “Europe and Germany don’t seem to realize that supporting the Biden administration abroad allows it to focus more on its internal challenges.”

Merkel’s Message to Biden: Europe Wants a Seat at the Table, Too

Senior European officials and diplomats say there’s no disagreement with Washington on the need to confront Moscow and Beijing where required. Rather, Europe -- with Merkel as senior stateswoman -- wants to send the message that, bruised by the antagonism of the Trump administration, the days of automatically following the U.S. lead are over, even with a more collaborative president in the White House.

Either way, with just months left of her fourth and final term, Merkel is in a rush to forge that more assertive European stance, according to people familiar with her thinking.

Yet efforts to pursue what has been termed strategic autonomy are still prone to misconception, all the more so since their chief proponent has a habit of being misunderstood even after more than 15 years in power.

‘Historical myopia’

Merkel’s attempt to convince fellow EU leaders to hold direct talks with Putin is a case in point. While many officials reasonably complained that the Germans and French had sprung their idea on leaders without prior consultation, one foreign minister called the initiative “irresponsible” and a case of “historical myopia.”

The half-dozen countries that opposed it either regard Merkel as wanting to soften the 27-nation bloc’s stance toward the Kremlin in a naive gift to Putin, or accuse her of advocating for narrow German economic interests. Diplomats familiar with the chancellor’s thinking say such theses are misplaced.

If Europe is to be taken seriously on the world stage, then Merkel believes it cannot outsource the decision-making to the U.S., they say.

U.S. officials and diplomats remain unimpressed, saying they’ve heard it all before. The problem is the same as ever, said a person familiar with the thinking in the Biden administration. The Europeans want the U.S. to lead but they want it to operate mostly through multilateral forums, even as they still want it to provide security guarantees, said the person. Germany, for example, is still not willing to spend enough on collective defense, the person said.

Nord Stream 2

Nothing has done more to fuel mutual distrust than the Nord Stream 2 natural-gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, a link opposed by the Biden administration as well as Ukraine and EU member Poland. Top of the agenda in Washington will be an attempt to reach a deal to blunt any geopolitical maneuvers Russia might try once the pipeline is finished.

It’s an example where diplomats say the chancellor’s attitude to Russia is misconstrued. One rebutted claims that the proposal Merkel and Macron tabled last month indicated a softening of their stance, saying that the package they put forward also included a call to prepare new and more effective sanctions to respond to malign Russian activities, including through economic measures. After all, it was Merkel who took in Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny after his poisoning, and visited him in the Berlin hospital where he received treatment.

Despite some frustration with the U.S., such as differences on intellectual property rights for vaccines and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, European officials are at pains to stress that transatlantic relations are strong and functional again under Biden. Most differences are on priorities and process rather than substance, and neither Merkel nor Macron view any contradiction between close U.S. ties and European autonomy.

Merkel’s Message to Biden: Europe Wants a Seat at the Table, Too

An entente may be coming on Nord Stream 2, too. Biden dropped plans for sanctions on the project, while Merkel took a step toward him Monday when she said that Europe will do everything in its power to ensure gas supplies continue to flow through Ukraine even after the pipeline’s completion.

When it comes to China, both the EU and U.S. view Beijing as a partner on climate change, an economic and trade competitor, and an adversary when it comes to democratic values and human rights. The prominence they each place on those three prongs differs. Though the EU has sanctioned Beijing over human rights, it has been careful not to over-antagonize China as its priorities are climate and economic relations, according to two people familiar with government thinking in Paris and Berlin.

In an address to the nation on Monday evening, Macron said that France’s EU presidency from Jan. 1 will focus on a common agenda of “industrial and technological independence.”

Meantime, Merkel will continue to work with Macron to push forward their Russia proposal, people familiar with her thinking said. One said that EU leaders already moved closer to Germany’s proposal at the summit, while another said that the chancellor in others would come around to her point of view once they meet again in October.

But Merkel is aware that time, a negotiating tool she has so often used to her advantage, is not on her side, a third person said. Whether she even attends the October summit will depend on how long it takes to form a government after September’s election.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.