They have ruled Germany together for 15 years. Now they are at Europe’s helm. With the start of the German EU Presidency, Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen have, together, forged plans to navigate Europe out of crisis, EURACTIV Germany reports.
Von der Leyen and Merkel discussed by video call on Thursday (2 July) how they can use the German Presidency to get Europe through the crisis.
During the press conference that followed, their friendship was apparent as they addressed each other by their first names and laughed together. Von der Leyen mentioned the “joy and cordiality” between them.
A shared past
The two are not only party colleagues from the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Merkel brought von der Leyen into her first government cabinet in 2005, to serve as Family and Women’s Affairs Minister.
Until she moved to Brussels, von der Leyen was a permanent member of Merkel’s cabinet, serving as labour minister, and then as defence minister, making her the last ‘survivor’ of Merkel’s first cabinet.
However, during these 15 years, their relationship was not always so harmonious. For instance, von der Leyen had two strong chances of becoming Germany’s first female president in 2004 and 2010 but was snubbed both times as Merkel chose a different candidate.
It must have been especially painful in 2010, when the media talked about von der Leyen as a favoured candidate.
But later, when Merkel was criticised over her refugee policy, the defence minister stood behind the leader. When the now-European Commission President was caught in the crossfire in 2017 because of her dealings with right-wing extremists, Merkel assured her of “all the support she needs”.
On China: ‘Very critical’ of human rights
In terms of content, the press conference repeatedly dealt with China and the European reaction to the security law in Hong Kong. The Commission President described relations in some areas as “very complex”, saying that China was both an “important partner” and a “systemic rival”.
They emphasised that they wanted to talk to Beijing not only about economic relations but also about human rights, of which Europe was “very critical”. According to Merkel, it was also necessary to discuss whether and how the principle of “one country, two systems” could still exist with this security law.
Von der Leyen did not address the question of possible sanctions but said that China must have an interest in functioning trade relations. If Europe showed a united and self-confident stance, she added, this would have a “long-term effect in China”.
When it comes to a post-Brexit trade agreement, a pressing matter for the German EU Presidency, Merkel said that work was already “at full speed”. However, she said that the agreement would not come at any price.
“We also have to prepare for another case”, code for a ‘no deal’ scenario, said Merkel, adding that this would be carried out together with the Commission.
MFF: Agreement to be reached in the summer
With a view to the upcoming EU summit of heads of state and government scheduled for 17-18 July in Brussels which will focus on the negotiations on the multiannual financial framework (MFF), Merkel said she was heading there with the aim of “reaching an agreement”.
Tough negotiations are expected, particularly with the so-called ‘Frugal Four’ – Austria, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands – still rejecting the idea of granting aid in the form of subsidies.
While Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte recently emphasised this to the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, he also, for the first time, gave signals that he was open to compromise.
Now Merkel has increased the pressure on the ‘Frugal Four’ by refusing to postpone negotiations. She said she could think of no other option “than to reach an agreement in the summer”.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]