European leaders gave German Chancellor Angela Merkel a standing ovation on Friday at her last EU summit after a 16-year reign that helped guide the bloc through major ups and downs.
Merkel has attended a staggering 107 EU summits that saw some of the biggest twists in recent European history, including the eurozone debt crisis, an inflow of Syrian refugees, Brexit and the creation of the bloc’s landmark pandemic recovery fund.
“You are a monument,” the host of the summits, European Council chief Charles Michel, said in the closed-door homage to her, according to an official in the room.
An EU summit “without Angela is like Rome without the Vatican or Paris without the Eiffel tower,” Michel said.
He handed Merkel a perspex cube with a globe described as an “artistic impression” of the Europa building where EU summits are hosted.
Merkel, with characteristic lack of fanfare, thanked journalists for their long nights at summits, though she offered a strong word of caution on the challenges still facing the EU, and her German successor.
“I am leaving the European Union, as far as my responsibility of Federal Chancellor is concerned, at a point in time where there is cause for concern,” she said.
“We have overcome many crises but we have a series of unresolved problems,” she said, citing disputes on migration, the bloc’s economy, and rule of law in EU countries.
Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel called Merkel a “compromise machine” who “usually did find something to unite us” through marathon intra-EU negotiations.
“Europe will miss her,” he said.
Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg called her “undoubtedly a great European” and “a haven of peace, if you like, within the European Union.”
Her departure, he said, “will leave a hole.”
Merkel’s final summit, a two-day affair in Brussels, leaned once again on her soft-power skills to ease a burning row with Poland over its rejection of the EU’s legal order — something many believed could be the next existential threat to the European Union.
On the first day on Thursday, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki defended an October 7 ruling by his country’s Constitutional Court that said EU law applied only in specific, limited areas and Polish law prevailed in all others.
Merkel, backed by French President Emmanuel Macron, spent her considerable political capital pushing for dialogue with Poland, warning against a “cascade” of legal fights if the issue blew up into challenges before the European Court of Justice.
The message was received by the European Commission and countries such as the Netherlands and Belgium that wanted a more muscular slapdown of Poland, which they accuse of rolling back democratic norms by removing judicial independence in national courts.
‘Principles over self-interest’
East-west feuding has been a recurrent theme in Merkel’s long tenure.
Her mediating role reflected both the status of Germany as the EU’s economic powerhouse with sway over many of the former Soviet-bloc countries, whose membership to the union tilted the political balance away from Paris and towards Berlin.
It also spoke to Merkel’s family background, of German and Polish descent, as well as her tactic of discreet behind-the-scenes nudging while conflicting forces exhausted themselves, before stepping in with a compromise solution.
In a surprise video posted on Twitter by the EU’s Michel, former US president Barack Obama praised Merkel as one of those rare leaders who put “their principles above any narrow definition of self interest.”
“Thanks to you, the centre has held through many storms.” @BarackObama addresses a few words to Chancellor Merkel as we are saying goodbye to her in the European Council #EUCO pic.twitter.com/FIUpCPkloW
— Charles Michel (@eucopresident) October 22, 2021
“It is a testament to your character that you’d probably enjoy working at a meeting of the European Council more than being the center of attention like this,” he added.
Germany is still in the process of putting together a government to replace Merkel’s, following September elections she did not contest that saw her conservative CDU party handed a drubbing.
Header: German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) and French President Emmanuel Macron (L) arrive for a joint press conference at the end of the European summit at the EU headquarters in Brussels on July 21, 2020 . John Thys/Pool via REUTERS