US President Barack Obama pays a farewell visit today (17 November) to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, widely seen as the new standard bearer of liberal democracy since the election of Donald Trump.
On the last leg of his final European tour as president, Obama will underline shared values, try to ease fears about the future of the transatlantic partnership and thank Merkel for her friendship during his two terms, White House officials said.
As Western leaders brace for potentially radical changes with Trump moving into the Oval Office in January, Obama wrapped up a visit to Athens Wednesday warning that globalisation required a “course correction” to keep voters from drifting to extremes.
“When we see people, global elites, wealthy corporations seemingly living by a different set of rules, avoiding taxes, manipulating loopholes… this feeds a profound sense of injustice,” he said.
After Trump’s shock victory, Merkel expressed a desire to maintain close ties with Washington.
But in an extraordinary break with tradition for Germany, which long saw the US as its protector and closest partner, Merkel pointedly said cooperation must be based on shared democratic principles and respect for human dignity.
Analysts said today’s meeting could be seen as a kind of passing of the torch from Obama to Merkel, whom he’s called “probably… my closest international partner”, for stewardship of the free world.
‘Like when the Wall fell’
Obama held the biggest rally of his 2008 campaign in Berlin, using the once-divided city’s rebirth as a symbol of progress as he made a hopeful call for a world without nuclear weapons to 200,000 cheering fans at the Victory Column monument at sunset.
He and Merkel, who took power in 2005, soon developed a strong partnership, despite rifts over revelations of NSA spying on Merkel’s mobile phone and Obama’s vocal opposition to Germany’s austerity-driven response to the European debt crisis.
Germans at the Victory Column on a grey November day hours before Obama’s arrival said they were sad to see him go and anxious about what the Trump administration would bring.
“We were so hopeful after George W. Bush left office,” said Thomas Schmidt, 54, a business clerk who recalled being “thrilled” when he watched Obama’s Berlin speech on television.
“It was a euphoric mood, a little bit like when the Berlin Wall fell. The feeling now with Trump is much more wary. No one knows what he might do.”
Hannah Mueller, a 26-year-old linguistics student, said Obama had failed to live up to many Germans’ expectations in his inability to close the military detention centre at Guantanamo Bay or advance peace in the Middle East.
“Trump made a terrible impression here during the election campaign but at least he won’t disappoint us,” she said.
Matthias Krah, 43, an IT project manager, found the prospect of Trump in the White House “scary” and predicted a major realignment of transatlantic ties.
“It means we Europeans will need to look inward. Maybe we can start doing without the US,” he said.
Opinion polls show the vast majority of Germans did not support Trump’s race for the White House.
Two out of three now say they fear ties with Washington will suffer under the new administration, according to a survey last week for public broadcaster ZDF.
Only three percent thought relations would improve, while 60% said that the number of international conflicts was likely to rise under President Trump.
Obama dined with Merkel at his hotel late Wednesday and will hold talks with her at her chancellery Thursday followed by a meeting Friday including the leaders of Britain, France, Italy and Spain.
It is expected that Obama and EU leaders will discuss extending sanctions imposed on Russia for its intervention in Ukraine, and possible new sanctions for its bombing in Syria, sources familiar with the plans said.
Trump has indicated that he will seek a rapprochement with Russia, raising doubts in Europe about the future of the sanctions regime introduced by Washington and Brussels in 2014 following Russia’s intervention in eastern Ukraine.
A German official said the plan was to agree a rollover of EU sanctions against Russia, which are due to expire at the end of January, in the coming weeks.
There is concern that Trump might move in the opposite direction after his inauguration on 20 January. European leaders will therefore be seeking clarity from Obama, who met Trump last week and said afterwards the president-elect would maintain core relationships around the world, including with NATO.
“We’re in a really critical situation,” said the German official. “We have to prevent a situation where the EU rolls over the sanctions and then the new US president comes in and lifts them.”
European officials fear that Russia will use the time before Trump’s inauguration to launch new offensives in Syria and Ukraine. Two diplomatic sources said the issue of Syria would also come up at the Friday meeting.
“Syria will definitely be on the agenda,” said one, citing coordinated Russian missile strikes against rebels in Syria launched on Tuesday from an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean.
The Kremlin has said it is maintaining a moratorium on air strikes in the city of Aleppo.
European Union leaders last month condemned Russia for its bombing of civilians in Aleppo and signalled that they could introduce new sanctions for its actions there if the bombing continued.
The Syrian opposition has been pressing Western countries to expand sanctions to include some Russian firms that are supplying weapons and bank notes to Syria.
Syrian opposition leaders are due to meet with EU leaders, including EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, in Brussels on Friday.
Another source said European leaders were keen to send a signal to Trump, making it more difficult for him to reverse US policy and cosy up to Russia.