Biden-Merkel meeting: The devil is in the detail

Liik added that if Berlin and Washington come up with an overall transatlantic policy on energy trade with Russia - taking into account the political, energy security aspects and the green agenda – then Eastern Europeans may lift their objections to the project. [EPA/ANDREAS GEBERT]

On Thursday (15 July), German Chancellor Angela Merkel will visit US President Joe Biden in the White House in what will be her last trip to Washington after nearly 16 years in power. The general objective is to reset transatlantic ties. But the details over the West’s strategy toward China and the future of Nord Stream 2 pipeline will determine the sustainability of the touted fresh start.

EURACTIV Germany contacted politicians and analysts who highlighted their expectations from this visit.

Nord Steam 2: a done deal?

Nord Stream 2 is likely to top the agenda, with Biden likely to raise concern over the controversial gas pipeline, which is expected to be completed before the end of the year, if not sooner, analysts said.

In May, Washington waived its sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 AG, which gives both sides three more months to reach an agreement on the matter. Washington and Berlin have been negotiating for weeks how to solve the disagreement, but a timeline for resolving the issue is still unclear.

From Merkel’s perspective, the pipeline is a means of keeping the door open to Moscow and securing energy supply while Biden, like Trump before him, believes the projects will make Germany and Europe dependent on Russian gas, while weakening gas transit country Ukraine.

According to Kadri Liik, senior policy fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations (ECFR), Berlin doesn’t want Nord Stream 2 to result in any bad blood between the two. “It seems to me that Merkel intends to seal the issue before she leaves office to smooth the relationships and have some sort of agreement,” she said.

Liik added that if Berlin and Washington come up with an overall transatlantic policy on energy trade with Russia – taking into account the political, energy security aspects and the green agenda – then Eastern Europeans may lift their objections to the project.

She wondered though whether such a comprehensive strategy is really possible until Merkel leaves office or it might take longer.

Considering that Nord Stream 2 was initiated before Europe’s third energy package, the expert projected that it would be quite hard to cancel it, despite the fact that no one in the German political establishment stands completely by the project.

“It looks like it will be functioning by the time the government changes in Berlin, but even if it weren’t, it would be hard to walk back on it,” Liik said.

She added that the Greens might not subscribe to it, but it would be hard for them to change anything major on this. “Most likely that question will not even stand as Nord Stream will be a done deal by that time.”

Green MEP Michael Bloss told EURACTIV that protecting climate with a natural gas pipeline from Russia “will never make sense […] We should put a swift end to this madness,” he said.

From a European perspective, Bloss said neither Poland nor France understand what the current German government is doing and projected that “we will pay dearly for a compromise with the US.”

Nils Schmid, foreign affairs spokesperson for the SPD parliamentary group, said Biden should clarify both Nord Stream 2 and China issues primarily with the future federal government, but noted that there are no insurmountable differences.

“We stand by our promise that Ukraine may not be cut off from the passage of Russian gas and the associated revenues in the future, and we will demand this from Russia,” he told EURACTIV.

Before Merkel’s trip to Washington, it was also unclear whether Nord Stream 2 could be equipped with a “kill switch,” an emergency shutdown device in the event that Russia drains the Ukrainian pipeline.

CDU chancellor candidate Armin Laschet and his SPD competitor Olaf Scholz recently gave the impression that it was possible to stop it at any time, even when the pipeline is ready.

Preventing China’s hegemony 

On China, Merkel personally pushed for the EU-China investment deal (CAI) struck late last year a few days before Biden’s inauguration.

She was criticised for not facing up to Beijing on human rights violations in Hong Kong and against a Muslim minority in Xinjiang, which the US has already labelled a genocide.

Merkel’s visit also has a geopolitical element, as Biden beside her has so far received in Washington only the two leaders of Japan and South Korea.

Jürgen Hardt, foreign affairs spokesman for the CDU/CSU parliamentary group, said close coordination between North America, the EU and important partners in the Indo-Pacific region, such as Japan or Australia, is the key to resilience to Chinese hegemony.

He also expressed his hope that Merkel will personally make a clear commitment to Germany’s NATO obligations for the next legislative period on behalf of the CDU/CSU, including a promise of higher defence spending.

“It should also signal that only a joint transatlantic strategy can be successful vis-à-vis China and Russia,” he told EURACTIV.

SPD’s Schmid said when it comes to China, the differences are much smaller than under the Trump administration.

“The main priority now is to remind China of its international obligations on the protection of intellectual property, respect for human rights and on Hong Kong,” he said, adding that from the US side, a relaxation of the restrictive entry regulations would be desirable.

(Alexandra Brzozowski, Oliver Noyan, EURACTIV.de | Sarantis Michalopoulos, EURACTIV.com)

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