‘History’: Merkel visits White House for last time as Chancellor

Chancellor Angela Merkel will visit the White House in her diplomatic swan song on Thursday, underlining how important the veteran German leader has been to the transatlantic relationship, but also highlighting the unanswered questions she leaves behind.

'History': Merkel visits White House for last time as Chancellor
Chancellor Merkel meets Vice President Kamala Harris in Washington D.C. on July 15th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/AP | Andrew Harnik

Merkel, who has dealt with four US presidents during her premiership and is stepping down later this year, will meet President Joe Biden for an official working visit.

The day kicked off with a breakfast at the Vice President’s residence, where Merkel – the first woman to become Chancellor of Germany – met Kamala Harris, the first black woman to become Vice President.

As the two women talked and laughed, the German Embassy posted a picture of them together, captioned simply: “History.” 

Harris said on Thursday that she was very honoured to meet Merkel, while the Chancellor stressed the need for the United States and Germany to work together to “strengthen democratic values”.

Following the meeting with Vice President Harris, Merkel will head to the White House at around 8pm Central European Time (CET) for one-on-one talks with Biden, followed by an early dinner. 

READ ALSO: Merkel to meet US President Biden in Washington this July

The format of Merkel’s diplomatic visit is intended to “convey gratitude,” a senior Biden administration official said.

However, the White House insists this is “very much a working visit,” rather than a ceremonial farewell for the woman widely seen as Europe’s steadiest leader during almost 16 years at the helm of the continent’s biggest economy.

She and Biden will discuss climate change, Covid-19 vaccine distribution, and the future of Afghanistan now that US, German and other foreign troops are leaving.

Jihadist threats in Africa’s Sahel region are on the agenda, the administration official said.

Reflecting Germany’s pivotal role in NATO and transatlantic security, the two leaders were also set to discuss Russian “cyberattacks and territorial aggression,” Ukraine’s struggle against Russia and “countering China’s rising influence.”

Unresolved issues 

However, Merkel is now out of time for resolving some of the pressing issues facing Europe and the United States.

These include the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline which is set to funnel Russian natural gas to Germany.

Not only will it bypass Ukraine, leading to fears that Russia is deliberately weakening its neighbour’s economy, but the project underscores European energy dependency on an increasingly hostile Moscow.

Despite strong criticism of the pipeline, Biden in May waived key US sanctions on Nord Stream 2 after concluding that it was too late to stop the project and that it was better to seek cooperation with Germany.

Biden “will raise his long standing concerns” on Thursday, the official said, but clearly there is little in the way of movement that can be expected.

READ ALSO: Merkel calls for new EU-US trade deal

Biden has invited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to the White House later this summer.

However, Nord Stream 2 is one of the reasons why Zelensky is nervous about how much he can count on European support against the far more powerful Russians.

On the flip side, Germany’s next leaders will no longer be able to be sure that whoever holds power in the United States after Biden won’t revert to the extraordinary disruption of the Donald Trump era.

“Trump’s raging hostility forced Germany to examine the unhealthy aspects of its dependency on America,” wrote Constanze Stelzenmuller, from the Brookings Institution think tank, in the Financial Times.

By Sebastian Smith

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Sleep, seaside, potato soup: What will Merkel do next?

 After 16 years in charge of Europe's biggest economy, the first thing Angela Merkel wants to do when she retires from politics is take "a little nap". But what about after that?

Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes and smiles at a 2018 press conference in Berlin.
Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes at a 2018 press conference in Berlin. Aside from plans to take "a little nap" after retiring this week, she hasn't given much away about what she might do next. Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

The veteran chancellor has been tight-lipped about what she will do after handing over the reins to her successor Olaf Scholz on December 8th.

During her four terms in office, 67-year-old Merkel was often described as the most powerful woman in the world — but she hinted recently that she will not miss being in charge.

“I will understand very quickly that all this is now someone else’s responsibility. And I think I’m going to like that situation a lot,” she said during a trip to Washington this summer.

Famous for her stamina and her ability to remain fresh after all-night meetings, Merkel once said she can store sleep like a camel stores water.

But when asked about her retirement in Washington, she replied: “Maybe I’ll try to read something, then my eyes will start to close because I’m tired, so I’ll take a little nap, and then we’ll see where I show up.”

READ ALSO: ‘Eternal’ chancellor: Germany’s Merkel to hand over power
READ ALSO: The Merkel-Raute: How a hand gesture became a brand

‘See what happens’
First elected as an MP in 1990, just after German reunification, Merkel recently suggested she had never had time to stop and reflect on what else she might like to do.

“I have never had a normal working day and… I have naturally stopped asking myself what interests me most outside politics,” she told an audience during a joint interview with Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

“As I have reached the age of 67, I don’t have an infinite amount of time left. This means that I want to think carefully about what I want to do in the next phase of my life,” she said.

“Do I want to write, do I want to speak, do I want to go hiking, do I want to stay at home, do I want to see the world? I’ve decided to just do nothing to begin with and see what happens.”

Merkel’s predecessors have not stayed quiet for long. Helmut Schmidt, who left the chancellery in 1982, became co-editor of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a popular commentator on political life.

Helmut Kohl set up his own consultancy firm and Gerhard Schroeder became a lobbyist, taking a controversial position as chairman of the board of the Russian oil giant Rosneft.

German writer David Safier has imagined a more eccentric future for Merkel, penning a crime novel called Miss Merkel: Mord in der Uckermark  that sees her tempted out of retirement to investigate a mysterious murder.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel forms her trademark hand gesture, the so-called “Merkel-Raute” (known in English as the Merkel rhombus, Merkel diamond or Triangle of Power). (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

Planting vegetables
Merkel may wish to spend more time with her husband Joachim Sauer in Hohenwalde, near Templin in the former East Germany where she grew up, and where she has a holiday home that she retreats to when she’s weary.

Among the leisure activities she may undertake there is vegetable, and especially, potato planting, something that she once told Bunte magazine in an interview in 2013 that she enjoyed doing.

She is also known to be a fan of the volcanic island of D’Ischia, especially the remote seaside village of Sant’Angelo.

Merkel was captured on a smartphone video this week browsing the footwear in a Berlin sportswear store, leading to speculation that she may be planning something active.

Or the former scientist could embark on a speaking tour of the countless universities from Seoul to Tel Aviv that have awarded her honorary doctorates.

Merkel is set to receive a monthly pension of around 15,000 euros ($16,900) in her retirement, according to a calculation by the German Taxpayers’ Association.

But she has never been one for lavish spending, living in a fourth-floor apartment in Berlin and often doing her own grocery shopping.

In 2014, she even took Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to her favourite supermarket in Berlin after a bilateral meeting.

So perhaps she will simply spend some quiet nights in sipping her beloved white wine and whipping up the dish she once declared as her favourite, a “really good potato soup”.