WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden welcomes German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the White House on Thursday for what is likely her last official visit to Washington, and she’s conveying a message to Berlin’s close ally: You’ve got a friend.
Merkel, who is not seeking another term in Germany’s Sept. 26 elections after nearly 16 years in charge, is expected to discuss the coronavirus pandemic, the rise of China and a Russian gas pipeline that Washington opposes. Her schedule also includes meetings with Vice President Kamala Harris and other senior U.S. officials.
“In part, this is a farewell visit. In part, she is signaling continuity and stability in the German-U.S. relationship,” said Johannes Thimm, a senior fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, a think tank in Berlin.
Many officials in Washington and elsewhere are wondering what course Germany might take after the upcoming vote. The chancellor — who has dealt with four U.S. presidents in her time — will seek to reassure the Americans that there won’t be a huge shift, Thimm said.
Merkel’s party is leading in polls, but the environmentalist Greens and the center-left Social Democrats are also vying to lead a future government. While the three parties differ in many policy areas, all are committed to a strong trans-Atlantic relationship.
One sour note that preceded and outlasted the Donald Trump era of diplomatic discord has been a new pipeline taking natural gas from Russia to Germany.
The United States has long argued that the Nord Stream 2 project will threaten European energy security by increasing the continent’s reliance on Russian gas and allowing Russia to exert political pressure on vulnerable Eastern and Central European nations. But Biden recently waived sanctions against German entities involved in the project, a move that angered many in Congress.
Biden is expected to raise his concerns about the pipeline project with Merkel, but the White House was not anticipating any sort of formal announcement to come from their talks, according to a Biden administration official who briefed reporters before Merkel’s visit.
Merkel has tried to dampen expectations for an imminent breakthrough, but she probably will want to resolve the issue before leaving office. “It weighs on German-U.S. relations and German-EU relations,” Thimm said.
While German officials have been unusually coy about which topics will be discussed during the trip, Merkel’s spokesperson confirmed Wednesday that China will come up.
“That can be said with relative certainty,” Steffen Seibert told reporters. “This also played an important role at the G-7 summit, where the chancellor and the American president last met.”
Germany has strong trade ties with China but has also been critical of Beijing’s human rights record. Merkel is keen to avoid a situation in which Germany, or the European Union, might be forced to choose sides between China and the United States.
Merkel has insisted on the need to cooperate with China on global issues such as climate change and the coronavirus pandemic, even while then-President Trump was accusing Beijing of having started it.
The humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders urged Biden to lean on Merkel to drop her opposition to proposals for suspending vaccine patents. Merkel, a trained scientist, has argued that lifting the patents wouldn’t be effective and could harm future research and development efforts.
A group of Democratic lawmakers called on Germany to drop its “blockade” of a COVID-19-related waiver of intellectual property rights under global trade rules. Such a waiver, the lawmakers argued, would help scale production of effective vaccines around the world.
The Biden administration has expressed support for the waiver being discussed at the World Trade Organization, but White House officials do not anticipate differences being resolved during Merkel’s visit.
While there are points of tension, Biden seems eager to offer Merkel a proper farewell.
Harris hosted Merkel for breakfast at her residence on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory before Merkel’s afternoon meeting with Biden and a joint news conference. The president plans a small dinner in honor of Merkel and her husband, chemist Joachim Sauer.
Merkel will also receive an honorary doctorate, her 18th, from Johns Hopkins University and is scheduled to speak at the university’s School of Advanced International Studies.
Jordans reported from Berlin.