Merkel’s failed Russia summit signals waning of her power

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

It was a rare flash of frustration by a politician renowned for her self-discipline and sang-froid. Yet it highlighted the scars left by a Franco-German initiative that triggered strong emotions and no little anger — even among Merkel’s closest allies.

The quarrel cast a pall over one of the last EU summits of one of Europe’s longest-serving leaders. Merkel is set to step down this year after 16 years as chancellor, and this week’s heated discussions were hardly the smooth send-off many expected. 

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

The EU-Russia summit was the second Merkel foreign policy initiative to misfire this year. A big EU-China investment deal that she had supported was put on ice in March by the European Parliament after China sanctioned five MEPs. “Merkel’s effectively a lame duck,” Speck said.

Merkel has in her long experience of EU summits shown mastery at reading the room and ensuring arguments go her way. But this week, that approach failed.

Visibly irked, she dismissed the suggestion of 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 aren’t a kind of reward,” she said at a post-summit press conference.

For Merkel’s political opponents in Germany, the row highlighted the collateral damage wrought by Nord Stream 2, the Berlin-backed pipeline which will bring Russian gas directly to Germany and that many see as increasing Europe’s reliance on Russian energy. 

“The problem is that thanks to NS2, Germany has lost all credibility as a representative of European interests,” said 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 idea of a Russia summit — chief among 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” in their relationship, Merkel said 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 question of a “new start” in EU-Russian relations, but instead a matter of figuring out how best to resolve current conflicts.

“Even in the Cold War . . . we always had channels of communication,” she said. While individual countries including Germany and France continued to talk to the Kremlin, it made more sense for the EU to speak to Moscow with one voice, she said.

Diplomats said Merkel probably felt that this week’s summit was her last opportunity to set the EU on a course of closer engagement before she shuffles off the political stage.

And her initiative had the backing of her junior coalition partner, 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, told the FT. “And Russia has to understand and accept EU integration.”

Nor was she wholly without EU support. While some leaders questioned offering Putin a summit given his worsening behaviour, advocates said the downward spiral in Russian relations was all the more reason for the EU to change tack. 

The problem, say diplomats, was that the idea was sprung by its proponents only a day before the summit. One branded the gambit “badly prepared” and “something that came as lightning from a clear sky”.

Germany also appears to have underestimated the sensitivities of member states geographically close to Russia. The Baltic response was particularly forceful, while some countries, such as the Netherlands, were emphatic that they would not sit at the same table with Putin. 

Nevertheless, Mark Rutte, Dutch prime minister and a longstanding Merkel ally, said 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 told the Financial Times. 

The plan’s audacity also jeopardised its chances. Russia has not withdrawn its forces from Crimea or eastern Ukraine, while the assassination attempt on Alexey Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, has further strained relations.

Still, this is far from being the end of the story. The Czech Republic and the Netherlands have indicated they are not necessarily opposed to a summit between the presidents of the European Commission and Council and Putin. 

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

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