Soccer Sours Talks With Johnson in Merkel’s Final U.K. Visit

Differences over soccer soured Angela Merkel’s final visit to the U.K., as the German chancellor warned Prime Minister Boris Johnson that his plans to boost crowd sizes for European Championship matches in London risked spreading the delta coronavirus variant.

The U.K. government has said that more than 60,000 fans will now be allowed to attend the championship semifinals on July 6 and 7 and the final on July 11, the largest sporting crowds allowed to gather in 15 months. The matches at London’s Wembley Stadium will be at 75% of capacity.

“I am worried and somewhat skeptical about whether it’s a bit too much,” Merkel said at a press conference with Johnson at his Chequers residence Friday. “We in Germany have decided to allow fewer spectators into the stadium in Munich, but the British government must make its own decisions.”

Her comments came after Johnson opened the briefing by teasing Merkel about Germany’s 2-0 loss to England this week. But German officials have been openly critical about crowd sizes throughout the tournament, especially as cases of the delta variant are surging across the U.K.

The issue also fits into a broader dispute with the U.K. over international travel during the pandemic. Merkel has been pushing the European Union to adopt a unified approach on travel from outside the bloc, and German already has a ban on U.K. visitors because it classifies the country as a “virus variant area.”

Johnson, for his part, said the latest coronavirus data showed vaccines had broken the link between cases and serious disease, allowing for larger crowds.

Brexit Tensions

The German leader also needled Johnson over post-Brexit tensions, saying that a clash over Northern Ireland’s trade status must be resolved pragmatically, but not deviate from the U.K.-EU agreement that Johnson has challenged.

“I personally believe that we can find pragmatic solutions within the framework of the Northern Ireland protocol as it was negotiated,” Merkel said.

That line echoed Merkel’s stance at last month’s Group of Seven summit in Cornwall, southwest England, where the chancellor did not get sucked into the heated rhetoric on Brexit. As Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron upped the ante, she kept a cool head and advocated for a sensible solution.

Merkel, who plans to stand down in the fall after 16 years in office, is also scheduled to meet Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle.

But it was soccer that cast a shadow over Friday’s meeting, after Johnson -- referring to England’s rare victory over Germany -- said he is “obviously grateful to you for breaking with that tradition, just for once.”

Merkel responded wryly: “It wasn’t exactly a voluntary offering on my part when it came to improving the atmosphere.”

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