Chancellor Angela Merkel has seen four presidents pass through the Oval Office in her 16 years at the helm of the German government. He sat down with George W. Bush, with Barack Obama, with Donald Trump and this Thursday he will do so with Joe Biden, in what will be his last visit to the United States and probably the last major international trip he will undertake before leaving the Foreign Ministry after the elections of September 26, to which he does not appear. The meeting is expected to be cordial, with the two leaders trying to reinforce the transatlantic link that Trump left touched after betting on the unilateral route of the America first. But the agenda will also include points of friction between both nations, such as the controversial Russian-German gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 and the relationship with China.
Biden has reversed controversial decisions by his predecessor that affected Germany. It stopped the withdrawal of 12,000 US soldiers from German soil, gave up imposing new sanctions against Nord Stream 2 and has eased tension over trade disputes. The Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, visited Berlin last June and advanced with his words what the atmosphere of the official visit will be: "It is fair to say that the United States does not have a better partner, a better friend in the world than Germany." The leaders will discuss the challenge posed by climate change, the evolution of the pandemic, probably also patents on vaccines and how to “promote economic prosperity and international security” on the basis of “shared democratic values” between both, US media from government sources point out.
The conflict over the gas pipeline will be the main stumbling block. Merkel said Monday that she did not think they could reach an agreement. Nearly completed Nord Stream 2 will transport large amounts of gas across the Baltic Sea bed directly from Russia to Germany, avoiding the Ukraine. Washington believes that the project will increase European energy dependence on Russia and that it leaves Ukraine in a very vulnerable position vis-à-vis the Kremlin. Ukraine fears losing millions from gas transit fees it now charges for pipelines running through its territory. In addition, it is a country of great geostrategic importance for the EU and for NATO, which critics of the project believe would be at the mercy of Vladimir Putin.
Despite pressure from other EU partners as well as from the European Parliament itself and from Washington, Merkel has always defended Nord Stream 2 as a private business. According to him Süddeutsche Zeitung, the teams of both leaders have been negotiating for weeks before the chancellor's visit. In Ukraine the gas pipeline raises blisters. It is not considered a commercial enterprise, but a geopolitical project that threatens the security not only of Ukraine, but of the whole of Europe. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met Merkel in Berlin on Monday and asked for assurances from both Germany and the United States that they will help them ensure normal gas supplies. He also recalled the 2,000 million dollars (about 1,690 million euros) that rights of way leave in its economy each year, with which investments in infrastructure and modernization of the country are undertaken. Merkel reaffirmed the German commitment that Ukraine will remain a transit point for Russian gas to Europe until 2024. "We will do everything in our power to guarantee it," said the chancellor days after meeting with Biden. "We have promised it and we will keep it," he stressed.
Biden will also speak to Merkel about taking a tougher stance on China. Until now, the chancellor has maintained a very pragmatic view on the Asian power, one of Germany's main trading partners. Critics of the leader are ugly that she has not been forceful in criticizing China's repression in Hong Kong or the abuses against Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang province. Merkel has traveled to China many times during her tenure. Washington is much more belligerent with a country that it faces in escalating sanctions, consulate closures, accusations of espionage and a travel ban, and which it sees as a rival and not just a competitor.
"The United States hopes that Europe will take sides," says Markus Kaim, an expert on transatlantic relations at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), but in the medium or long term. The analyst does not believe that Merkel's visit, which is in a way part of her farewell tour of world leaders, addresses a concrete commitment on China. He also does not believe that there will be big decisions about the gas pipeline or other issues, such as the German contribution to NATO. Merkel could achieve, he assures, a small victory: for the United States to open its borders again to travelers from the Schengen zone. The restrictions due to the pandemic, he adds, not only affect tourism, but also trade relations, he remembers: "I would return to Europe with some achievement, it would be good publicity for her."
Merkel flies to Washington on Wednesday evening and her first date on Thursday morning will be with the Vice President of the United States, Kamala Harris, at the Naval Observatory, where they will have breakfast together. Afterwards, the chancellor will meet with representatives of the US economy at the residence of the German ambassador. The official agenda marks that at 11:30 a.m. Merkel will be at Johns Hopkins University to receive an honorary doctorate from this prestigious academic institution. He is the eighteenth of the chancellor. Around two in the afternoon, Merkel will arrive at the White House, where she will be received in the Oval Office by Joe Biden. A joint press conference is scheduled at 4.15pm. Before returning to the airport, where she will take the plane back to Germany, Merkel and her husband, Joachim Sauer, are invited to a dinner at the White House with the US president and his wife, Jill Biden.