A fond farewell to Merkel on Obama’s final visit to Germany

Chancellor and US president cast aside past differences in favour of praise and respect

Barack Obama and Angela Merkel on his trip to Germany for an industrial fair and to meet European leaders.  Photograph: Michael Ukas/Getty

Barack Obama and Angela Merkel on his trip to Germany for an industrial fair and to meet European leaders. Photograph: Michael Ukas/Getty

 

US president Barack Obama has insisted the transatlantic trade deal (TTIP) will not undermine EU ecological and social standards. He also predicted that German chancellor Angela Merkel’s stance in the migration crisis will put her “on the right side of history”.

In his fifth, final and most reflective visit to Germany, Mr Obama skirted over past tensions with Dr Merkel – spying on her mobile phone, for instance – and praised her “consistent, steady, trustworthy” leadership, particularly in the ongoing migration crisis.

“Perhaps because she once lived behind a wall herself she understands the aspirations of those who are denied freedom,” he said of the East German-raised leader, under domestic pressure for welcoming one million asylum seekers last year.

Ahead of their joint visit to Hanover’s trade fair, some 50,000 people protested against TTIP, which they dubbed “Trojan Tricks in Political Business”, fearing the deal, if signed, will prioritise US economic concerns over EU legal standards.

Mr Obama said he understood globalisation fears, citing the tangible negative effects of local factory closures. But he insisted the benefits of such trade deals outweighed the costs, and expressed hope that negotiations for TTIP would be concluded, though the package not ratified, by year-end.

He dismissed as “hypothetical” fears that companies could use TTIP to drive down standards, noting that existing deals already contain similar arrangements.

Such deals “improve rather than detract from the kind of progressive goals that brought me into office, otherwise I wouldn’t support these laws”, he said.

Standing alongside Dr Merkel, with whom he has worked longer than any other world leader, a reflective Mr Obama recalled their joint efforts to avert a global economic meltdown, prevent Iran gaining nuclear weapons and to secure the Paris climate-change deal.

He described German troops as “vital” in securing stability in Afghanistan and paid tribute to Dr Merkel’s leading role in the crisis diplomacy between Russia and Ukraine.

Sense of humour

“She has a really good sense of humour that she doesn’t show at press conferences . . . which probably serves her well and is why she is such a long-lasting leader, because she watches what she says.”

Before the atmosphere in Hanover became too maudlin, Mr Obama joked that he was still waiting for the predicted slow-down in his final months in office.

The two leaders were “deeply concerned” about Saturday’s missile tests in North Korea as well as the upsurge in fighting in Syria in the last days.

And they insisted they did not disagree over the idea of creating “safe zones” inside war-torn Syria for its civilians.

Mr Obama said he was not ideologically opposed to the idea but was wary of a big military commitment “to take over a chunk” of Syria: regarding this, all his administration’s analyses threw up complicated questions with few answers.

A day after backing the proposal on her visit to Turkey, the German leader insisted it was “not about influencing the matter from the outside” but encouraging Syrian groups in ceasefire talks to identify safe areas for civilians.

Ahead of the upcoming Nato summit in Warsaw, in a nod to ongoing US frustration over European military readiness, the German leader promised to boost military and defence spending to meet alliance commitments.

Given Washington’s growing expectations of Berlin in an uncertain world, she added: “We think that we need to show more international responsibility.”

In just one oblique reference to the Snowden spying scandal that caused friction with Berlin, Mr Obama said he and the German leader had agreed on improved information sharing to fight terrorism “while upholding values, civil liberties and privacy of citizens here and in the US”.

The two leaders were asked, too, about another point of tension between the capitals: Berlin’s refusal to back a US-led military action against Libya in 2011. In recent days, Mr Obama has described as one of his greatest regrets the failure to have a plan in place after toppling Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Did Dr Merkel feel vindicated by her decision to keep Germany out of Libya?

She sidestepped the question, suggesting diplomatically that past differences were less important than joint efforts now to “build up a functioning state in Libya, which is anything but easy”, given its unstable, tribal past.

Asked if he envied Dr Merkel – halfway through her third term and no end in sight – Mr Obama praised the US constitution for requiring “fresh legs” after two presidential terms. But, equally diplomatically, Mr Obama said he was glad “Angela” would be “sticking around”.

“I think the world benefits from her steady presence,” he said. “She has to be admired for her remarkable endurance.”