President Biden and Angela Merkel huddled in the White House on Thursday as the German chancellor takes a final trip to Washington to restore and strengthen trans-Atlantic ties and reach for common ground on China, vaccine-sharing and a controversial gas pipeline.
Mr. Biden extolled Ms. Merkel‘s long career and the German-American relationship at the top of meetings in the Oval Office.
“She‘s a great friend, a personal friend, and a friend of the United States,” Mr. Biden said. “We’re ready to dive in. Cooperation between the United States and Germany has been strong and we hope to continue that.”
Ms. Merkel said the meetings will give them a chance to shore up ties while addressing geopolitical issues that impact her neighbors.
“I’m delighted to be here,” Ms. Merkel said. “We have an opportunity to talk more about the bilateral relationship of that relationship between Germany and America, obviously always in the context of European matters.”
Mr. Biden suggested he will make a return trip to Germany: “Soon, I hope.”
But some disagreements were on display during a joint press conference Thursday afternoon.
The two made it clear they have divergent views on the $11 billion Nord Stream 2 pipeline, an undersea gas pipeline that would stretch from Russia to Germany.
Mr. Biden reiterated his concerns over the pipeline, disagreeing with Ms. Merkel who sees it as critical to her nation’s energy goals.
Still, both agreed on fears that Russia would use the pipeline to gain leverage over its neighbors is real.
“While I reiterated my concerns about Nord Stream to Chancellor Merkel, we are absolutely united in our conviction that Russia must not be allowed to use energy as a weapon to coerce or threaten its neighbors,” Mr. Biden said.
Ms. Merkel said if Russia acts in bad faith, she has a number of actions she could take, including sanctions to hold it accountable.
Ms. Merkel has served as chancellor since 2005 but is not seeking another term. She will exit the political stage after German elections in the fall, with 60-year-old Armin Laschet — a fellow member of the Christian Democratic Union— considered the front-runner to succeed her.
Ms. Merkel has held considerable sway over the European Union and the broader world during a tenure that’s spanned four U.S. presidents, starting with George W. Bush.
Mr. Biden is trying to smooth relations with Germany after a rocky period during the Trump administration. For instance, he halted the planned withdrawal of some U.S. troops from Germany.
But he’s also pressing Europe to take a harder line on China’s trade practices. It could be a hard sell, as Ms. Merkel shows no interest in disengaging with a key economic partner in Asia.
Ms. Merkel and European leaders also rejected Mr. Biden’s push to waive patents on COVID-19 vaccines, saying there are ways to distribute shots to poorer counties without infringing on intellectual property.
Mr. Biden recently waived sanctions on the nearly completed Nord Stream 2 pipeline that takes gas from Russia to Germany, a move that congressional Republicans dubbed a “baffling” gift to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Senior administration officials said the decision on the nearly completed pipeline gave them “diplomatic space” to press Germany on concerns they have about Russia using the project as a “coercive tool” against Ukraine and other Eastern European countries.
Ms. Merkel, meanwhile, downplayed the likelihood of a full resolution of differences over the pipeline during the White House session, which include a “working session” and a friendly dinner.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told the leaders to keep his nation’s interests in mind as they negotiate.
“Values, principles & security can’t be exchanged for economic interests. I believe that our American and German partners will jointly oppose the aggressor, not encourage it. And no decision on Ukraine without Ukraine,” Mr. Zelenskyy wrote, using flag emojis in place of country names.
Ms. Merkel is the first European leader and fifth foreign official to visit Mr. Biden at the White House since his inauguration, following leaders from Japan, South Korea, Israel and Afghanistan.
Earlier Thursday, Vice President Kamala Harris hosted Ms. Merkel for breakfast at her Naval Observatory residence — the first such visit by a foreign leader since Ms. Harris took office.
“I can only say that I’m delighted too for this opportunity here to meet the first Madam Vice President of the United States of America and I think that we can indeed cooperate very well in order to boost values and also continue to build on them,” Ms. Merkel said.
Over gruyere soufflés, sourdough bread and a salami plate, Ms. Harris told Ms. Merkel that democracies are in “peril” and their nations must live up to their shared values.
“They expressed their shared desire to strengthen the transatlantic partnership and continue robust cooperation in areas such as pandemic response and recovery, global health, and the environment,” said Harris spokeswoman Symone Sanders.
Ms. Harris thanked Ms. Merkel for Germany’s contributions to global vaccination efforts after U.S. drugmaker Pfizer worked with German company BioNTech on one of the most widely used shots.
They also discussed climate change and “the need for concrete actions to create norms around emerging technology, and for more coordinated international efforts to address the root causes of migration,” Ms. Sanders said.