Angela Merkel said she was “saddened” that other EU leaders had derailed her idea that the bloc holds its first summit with Vladimir Putin since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. It showed, she said, that “we don’t really trust each other.”
It was a rare flash of frustration from a politician known for her self-discipline and composure. Still, he highlighted the scars left by a Franco-German initiative it sparked strong emotions and quite a bit of anger, even among Merkel’s closest allies.
The feud has cast a veil over one of the last European summits of one of the oldest European leaders. Merkel is set to step down this year after 16 years as Chancellor, and this week’s heated talks have not been the smooth start many have been waiting for.
“She miscalculated the influence she can wield,” said Ulrich Speck, senior visiting scholar at the German Marshall Fund in the United States. “It was a sign that his power was waning.”
The EU-Russia summit was Merkel’s second foreign policy initiative to fail this year. A large EU-China investment deal that she had supported was put on ice in March by the European Parliament after China sanctioned five MEPs. “Merkel is indeed a lame duck,” Speck said.
Merkel has, in her long experience of European summits, has shown mastery in reading the room and making sure that the arguments reach her. But this week that approach failed.
Visibly upset, she rejected the suggestion by some EU states that she and Macron were making “free concessions” to Russia by pushing the summit idea. “I want to make it clear that such talks with the Russian president are not some kind of reward,” she said at a post-summit press conference.
For Merkel’s political opponents in Germany, the dispute has highlighted the collateral damage caused by Nord Stream 2, the Berlin-backed gas pipeline that will carry Russian gas directly to Germany and which many see as Europe’s growing dependence on Russian energy.
“The problem is that thanks to NS2, Germany has lost all credibility as a representative of European interests,” said Franziska Brantner, Greens spokesperson on Europe. “Some EU member states are really questioning whether the German government is acting in the best interests of Europe or only in the interests of German companies.”
After the summit, Merkel explained what drove her to promote the idea of a summit in Russia – foremost among them the spectacle of Joe Biden meets Putin directly in Geneva this month.
Since the United States and Russia have agreed on a framework to “discuss all contentious issues” in their relationship, Merkel said that “in such circumstances it would make sense to find formats for that the EU can also talk to Russia ”.
It was not, she insisted, a “new start” in EU-Russia relations, but rather a question of finding the best way to resolve the current conflicts.
“Even during the Cold War. . . we have always had channels of communication, ”she said. As individual countries, including Germany and France, continued to speak in the Kremlin, it made more sense for the EU to speak to Moscow with one voice, she said.
Diplomats said Merkel likely thought this week’s summit was her last opportunity to put the EU on a path to closer engagement before it left the political arena.
And his initiative had the support of his junior coalition partner, the Social Democrats. “The EU must become a major player in security policy. . .[and]act as one man in international affairs, ”SPD Finance Minister Olaf Scholz told FT. “And Russia must understand and accept integration into the EU.”
It was also not totally without the support of the EU. While some leaders questioned Putin’s offer of a summit given his deteriorating demeanor, advocates said the downward spiral in Russian relations was one more reason for the EU to change course. .
The problem, diplomats say, was that the idea was launched by his supporters just a day before the summit. One of them called the gambit “ill-prepared” and “something that came like lightning from a clear sky”.
Germany also seems to have underestimated the sensitivities of member states geographically close to Russia. The Baltic response has been particularly forceful, with some countries, such as the Netherlands, insisting that they will not sit at the same table as Putin.
Nonetheless, Mark Rutte, Dutch Prime Minister and longtime ally of Merkel, said the Chancellor’s bet would “in no way” mar her legacy.
“My position was actually very close to the Franco-German proposal, but I could not accept a meeting of the EU27 with Putin. It would be too much of a gift for him, ”he told the Financial Times.
The boldness of the plan also compromised his chances. Russia has not withdrawn its forces from Crimea or eastern Ukraine, while the assassination attempt against Alexei Navalny, the leader of the Russian opposition, has further strained relations.
Yet this is far from the end of the story. The Czech Republic and the Netherlands have indicated that they are not necessarily opposed to a summit between the presidents of the European Commission and the Council and Putin.
And Sanna Marin, Prime Minister of Finland, said the issue was still unresolved. “Yesterday was not a good time, but I think we’ll discuss it further.”