After 16 years of Merkel, EU summit could mark end of an era
When Angela Merkel attended her first EU summit in December 2005, her fellow leaders included Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac. It was a different world from the one that exists now as she attends what could be her last.
Europe’s divisions over the Iraq war were still raw. Blair was running the European Council, as the British held the EU’s rotating presidency. During the summit, the UK brokered a deal on the EU budget that cut the British rebate to pay for enlargement into central and eastern Europe.
Sixteen years later, the British are out and the EU has survived several near-death experiences following the 2008 financial crisis. Merkel is not only the leader of the EU’s biggest country but also the longest-serving. Now as she prepares to step down as Germany’s chancellor, the EU is preparing for life after Angela Merkel.
When she starts to speak at the European Council, leaders “put their iPhones away”, said the Dutch PM, Mark Rutte. “Pens are put down. And we listen to her.”
Merkel’s ally Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, said Merkel had the “power to unite – we’ll of course miss that”.
Merkel hasn’t always been seen as a unifying figure. She was accused of imposing painful austerity on bailed-out countries during the eurozone crisis, while a German-inspired plan for mandatory refugee quotas in 2015 sparked fury in central Europe.
But her priority has always been keeping the EU together. In 2015 Merkel overruled her finance minister, who had been toying with Greece’s exit from the eurozone. After a 17-hour summit, Greece stayed.
While renowned for her stamina, the German chancellor is also famous for taking a break when she wants. In 2016 when negotiations over Britain’s special status deal were dragging hours behind schedule, Merkel dashed out to a local friterie for chips with spicy andalouse sauce.
Stamina could be needed again. If German coalition talks drag on for weeks after September’s elections, there is still a chance Merkel will be back for one more summit in October.