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German Chancellor Angela Merkel closed her 107th – and almost certainly the last – European Council meeting on Friday in quintessential Merkel style.
She methodically explained to reporters the details of the two-day EU leaders’ summit, carefully followed a centrist and non-confrontational line in discussing divisive issues and difficult personalities, and patiently answered questions about the ups and downs of her 16 years in office as she nears retirement.
And when it came to the inevitable reflection on the European universe without Angela Merkel, she was predictably stoic, politely refusing to engage in a hypothetical question about the possibility of being invited back. to save the EU from collapse. But she also noted, with her unwavering calm, that there were many reasons for concern and that her successor – almost certainly Social Democrat Olaf Scholz – will face “impressive challenges”.
In her closing press conference, Merkel, 67, began by joking, with just a small smile, that her colleagues had given her one last, long summit (although without a sleepless night it was not by far. longest meeting she attended).
âThere was great interest in letting me have a long final Council,â she said in a neutral tone. âWe debated extensively.
Merkel, who became Germany’s first female chancellor in 2005, seemed quite happy to describe the leaders’ complicated discussions on how to deal with a recent surge in energy prices, and the state of the program. COVID-19 vaccination campaign and efforts to donate vaccines to other countries, which she said were doing well.
“Despite all the difficulties we have encountered,” said Merkel, “there are some things that I think we can be very proud of.”
But she hasn’t been swept away at all by the hoo-has others, including Council President Charles Michel, have attempted to do about her presumably final summit.
Michel, in a brief diversion from the work program on Friday morning, made remarks on Swedish Prime Minister Stefan LÃ¶fven, who was also attending his last summit, and on Merkel. And he gave them a new and unusual gift for their service: a glass âartistic impressionâ of the Council’s Europa building and its characteristic âlanternâ interior, which is often referred to as the space egg.
The glass totem pole was created by Maxim Duterre, a Franco-Dutch designer and artist based in Eindhoven, and officials said Michel intended to create a new tradition by passing it on to all outgoing Council members. (Czech Prime Minister Andrej BabiÅ¡ will be the next leader to receive one in December.)
While Michel praised LÃ¶fven for his “strong and reassuring presence”, he described with much more effusiveness Merkel, long the most influential of EU heads of state and government. And he began by begging her not to be angry with the agitations made in her honor.
âI know you don’t like surprises or celebrations,â says Michel. “I hope you won’t be sorry for this ceremony at your last EUCO.”
He went on to say, “You are a monument,” adding, “EUCO without Angela is like Rome without the Vatican or Paris without the Eiffel Tower.”
Michel cited his “extreme sobriety and simplicity” and added: “It is a very powerful weapon of seduction. “
In addition to a video montage showing Merkel at Council summits over the years, there was a brief video message from former US President Barack Obama, who also noted that Merkel would not benefit from the attention.
âIt’s a testament to your character that you probably enjoy working at a European Council meeting more than being the center of attention like this,â Obama said.
“I was happy to become your friend seeing you show good humor, shrewd pragmatism and a relentless moral compass in making difficult decisions for many years,” Obama said, adding towards the end of his post. : âThanks to you, the center has withstood many storms.
Call for compromise
For her part, Merkel told reporters about the latest of those storms: a fight between Brussels and Poland over the rule of law she seemed to suggest was overkill.
She urged compromise and expressed sympathy for the new EU member countries who were forced to join an already formed club without having participated in all of its rules and demands.
“There might be the idea or feeling that those who joined later find themselves in the position where they have to accept something that was there when they joined and they have no right to question it.” Merkel said, while quickly adding that all EU countries are bound to abide by the bloc’s treaties.
But then she quickly returned to compromise. “So I think talks should be possible,” she said.
Perhaps out of deference to Merkel’s conciliatory line, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen appeared on Friday to step away from recent suggestions that she may soon trigger a new budget execution mechanism that could cut some funds to Poland.
The head of the Commission declared at the end of the summit that “the European Court of Justice must judge, at the request of Hungary and Poland, whether this conditionality mechanism is legally sound” and that “no measure is will be taken before the decision “.
Von der Leyen noted that in the meantime “we can send letters, ask for information or questions that need to be asked.”
His position contrasts with the comments made less than a week ago by the justice commissioner Didier Reynders. Asked by Bloomberg TV when the conditionality mechanism would be triggered, he replied: “It’s a matter of days or weeks, maximum.”
When asked if other leaders, including the fighter Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor OrbÃ¡n, showed her the same respect she showed them, Merkel responded with a tongue-in-cheek version of “sort of.”
âWell I hope respect is something that everyone shows and expresses, of course we have different ways of expressing it,â she said. âWe all know Viktor OrbÃ¡n. Without a doubt, he must be considered one of the most confident politicians in the European Union. But I hope everyone knows that the European Union is an asset.
Merkel said she was particularly pleased that the leaders agreed to conclusions on migration policy following a discussion on Friday that also covered the situation on the border with Belarus, where migrants have been. encouraged by the government of Alexander Lukashenko to enter the EU illegally.
In typical Brussels fashion, the Heads of State and Government agreed on a text which, for some diplomats, meant a nod to the 12 countries (from Greece to Lithuania) which demanded that EU funds are used to build border fences. But other diplomats have said the same text means no fence can be built with EU funds.
In the end, it was von der Leyen, a follower of Merkel, who clarified the point in her own press conference when she said she was “very clear” that there is a long-standing agreement. date within the Commission and with the European Parliament âthat there will be no financing of barbed wire and walls.
Merkel said: “It’s good that we can agree and find a conclusion today.”
Asked about those who criticize her, Merkel said it was their right in democratic societies that enjoy free speech. âWe live in free societies, so everyone has the right to voice their criticism. For my part, I try to help solve these problems. If others have a different point of view on this, I have to accept that fact, âshe said.
As for the possibility of being called upon to help prevent the breakup of the EU in the future, she said: âGenerally speaking, I’m not happy to answer hypothetical questions. I have confidence and I am convinced that we will not get to such a point.
Lili Bayer and Andrew Gray contributed reporting.