Merkel’s failed Russia summit signals waning of her power

Angela Merkel mentioned she was “saddened” that fellow EU leaders scuppered her concept for the bloc to hold its first summit with Vladimir Putin since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. It confirmed, she mentioned, that “we just don’t trust each other much”.

It was a uncommon flash of frustration by a politician famend for her self-discipline and sang-froid. Yet it highlighted the scars left by a Franco-German initiative that triggered robust feelings and no little anger — even amongst Merkel’s closest allies.

The quarrel forged a pall over one of many final EU summits of one in all Europe’s longest-serving leaders. Merkel is about to step down this yr after 16 years as chancellor, and this week’s heated discussions had been hardly the graceful send-off many anticipated. 

“She miscalculated the influence she can bring to bear,” mentioned Ulrich Speck, senior visiting fellow on the German Marshall Fund of the US. “It was a sign that her power is waning.” 

The EU-Russia summit was the second Merkel international coverage initiative to misfire this yr. A giant EU-China funding deal that she had supported was put on ice in March by the European Parliament after China sanctioned 5 MEPs. “Merkel’s effectively a lame duck,” Speck mentioned.

Merkel has in her lengthy expertise of EU summits proven mastery at studying the room and making certain arguments go her method. But this week, that method failed.

Visibly irked, she dismissed the suggestion of some EU states that she and Macron had been making “free concessions” to Russia by pushing the summit concept. “I want to make it clear that such talks with the Russian president aren’t a kind of reward,” she mentioned at a post-summit press convention.

For Merkel’s political opponents in Germany, the row highlighted the collateral harm wrought by Nord Stream 2, the Berlin-backed pipeline which can deliver Russian gasoline on to Germany and that many see as growing Europe’s reliance on Russian vitality. 

“The problem is that thanks to NS2, Germany has lost all credibility as a representative of European interests,” mentioned Franziska Brantner, the Greens’ spokesperson on Europe. “Some EU member states really wonder whether the German government is acting in the interests of Europe or just those of German business.”

After the summit, Merkel spelt out what drove her to push the concept of a Russia summit — chief amongst them the spectacle of Joe Biden meeting directly with Putin in Geneva this month. 

Given that the US and Russia agreed between themselves on a framework for “discussing all the contentious issues” of their relationship, Merkel mentioned that “under such circumstances, it would make sense to find formats for the EU to speak to Russia, too”.

It was not, she insisted, a query of a “new start” in EU-Russian relations, however as a substitute a matter of determining how finest to resolve present conflicts.

“Even in the Cold War . . . we always had channels of communication,” she mentioned. While particular person international locations together with Germany and France continued to speak to the Kremlin, it made extra sense for the EU to talk to Moscow with one voice, she mentioned.

Diplomats mentioned Merkel most likely felt that this week’s summit was her final alternative to set the EU on a course of nearer engagement earlier than she shuffles off the political stage.

And her initiative had the backing of her junior coalition associate, the Social Democrats. “The EU must become a major player in security policy . . . [and] act as one in international affairs,” Olaf Scholz, the SPD finance minister, advised the FT. “And Russia has to understand and accept EU integration.”

Nor was she wholly with out EU help. While some leaders questioned providing Putin a summit given his worsening behaviour, advocates mentioned the downward spiral in Russian relations was all of the extra cause for the EU to vary tack. 

The downside, say diplomats, was that the concept was sprung by its proponents solely a day earlier than the summit. One branded the gambit “badly prepared” and “something that came as lightning from a clear sky”.

Germany additionally seems to have underestimated the sensitivities of member states geographically near Russia. The Baltic response was significantly forceful, whereas some international locations, such because the Netherlands, had been emphatic that they might not sit on the similar desk with Putin. 

Nevertheless, Mark Rutte, Dutch prime minister and a longstanding Merkel ally, mentioned the chancellor’s gambit would in “no way” stain her legacy.

“My position was in fact very close to the Franco-German proposal, but I could not agree to a EU27 meeting with Putin. It would be too much of a present for him,” he advised the Financial Times. 

The plan’s audacity additionally jeopardised its possibilities. Russia has not withdrawn its forces from Crimea or jap Ukraine, whereas the assassination try on Alexey Navalny, the Russian opposition chief, has additional strained relations.

Still, that is removed from being the tip of the story. The Czech Republic and the Netherlands have indicated they don’t seem to be essentially against a summit between the presidents of the European Commission and Council and Putin. 

And Sanna Marin, prime minister of Finland, mentioned the query was nonetheless not settled. “Yesterday wasn’t the right time, but I think we will discuss this further.”