Attending her last G7, Merkel has had enough of U.S. leadership

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As Angela Merkel prepares for her final Group of Seven meeting and Joe Biden for his first as president, their differences amount to more than simply summit experience.

Merkel is part of a heavyweight European contingent to the G7 on England’s southwest coast that is emerging from the pandemic unusually united and determined to carve out a bigger global role on a par with its U.S. ally.

For the chancellor, Emmanuel Macron of France and Italy’s Mario Draghi, as well as European Union leaders that get a seat at the table, the relief is genuine at the prospect of dealing with Biden rather than Donald Trump. Yet their high hopes for the summit don’t diminish a growing sense that collectively they need to get out from under America’s shadow and influence policy in Washington rather than meekly accept the U.S. line.

An impending deal to shelve outstanding EU-U.S. trade conflicts shows the mutual desire to work together. However, there is annoyance in Berlin, Paris and Brussels at Biden’s call to arms to save the world from COVID-19, after the U.S. reserved its vaccines for Americans while Europe took domestic flak for exporting shots globally — some 300 million since January — including to fellow G7 members Canada and Japan.

For Europe the pandemic illustrates the need to get its point across to Washington. It’s a search for greater influence that appears in tune with public opinion, with surveys this week suggesting that transatlantic rifts persist after Trump. The G7 is planning to pledge 1 billion new doses over the next year, according to a draft communique. The Biden administration plans to buy 500 million Pfizer-BioNTech doses to share.

The G7 will show the world “that the alliance and their leaders are back after Trump and the pandemic to tackle global problems,” said Peter Beyer, the German government’s transatlantic coordinator. Still, he said, “it’s not just about returning to the old Western alliance, but rather about forging a new West.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel addresses the media in Berlin on June 2. | POOL / VIA AFP-JIJI
German Chancellor Angela Merkel addresses the media in Berlin on June 2. | POOL / VIA AFP-JIJI

As the U.S. president flies in for the G7, a NATO summit, EU-U.S. talks, then a meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, there is a sense in Europe of a chance to advance its cause. Brussels especially is in an emboldened mood, according to two EU officials, who cited the bloc’s vaccination program yielding results, the euro-area economy picking up strongly, and the imminent arrival of massive EU pandemic stimulus.

More than just confidence, Europe’s leaders have a degree of certitude that they’ve been proven correct on matters from climate to Iran and have a right to make their views heard. Four years of Trump created a lot of mistrust, but also a conviction that Europe should be less submissive to America, said one person working on the EU-U.S. summit.

“The European Union can be the front-runner when it comes to the ideas for the world,” European Council President Charles Michel, who will attend the G7, said in an interview this week with a small group of news outlets. Citing summit topics from climate action to taxation and vaccine certificates, he said that the EU has more influence than it’s given credit for, and “sometimes in Europe we forget that.”

That differs from the Biden administration’s emphasis on a post-Trump return to American leadership.

“Whether it is ending the Covid-19 pandemic everywhere, meeting the demands of an accelerating climate crisis, or confronting the harmful activities of the governments of China and Russia, the United States must lead the world from a position of strength,” Biden said in an op-ed published in the Washington Post on Sunday.

European officials talk of disappointment that Biden’s policies bear some hallmarks of Trump’s “America First” stance. The EU raised concerns with the U.S. about Biden’s surprise withdrawal from Afghanistan, where several member states including Germany have troops, according to people familiar with the discussions. One official said that the new administration seems to bank on goodwill simply because Biden is not Trump.

“We expected more change with Biden,” said Francoise Nicolas, director of the Center for Asia Studies at the French Institute of International Relations in Paris.

Spurring Europe on is the realization that there is a small window for its biggest hitters to advance their common interests. Macron faces a bruising election campaign ahead of next year’s presidential election, while Draghi, the former European Central Bank chief appointed Italy’s technocratic leader, is unlikely to serve beyond 2023.

Most pressing of all, Merkel isn’t standing in September’s German election, meaning this is her G7 swansong. She’s not about to take a back seat, though, and will push for a clear signal to both Minsk and Moscow over recent events in Belarus and Russia’s involvement, according to a senior German government official…

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