Last week I waited in a crowded press for German Chancellor Angela Merkel to come down the stairs of the Egmont Building in Brussels.
She had already had lunch with King Philip and would later go to a farewell concert with the works of Mozart and Beethoven. In other words, they were putting it up for her.
“You have always kept your cool,” Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo told her as they prepared to face the media.
And she certainly appeared calm, even impassive, despite the heavy outpouring of affectionate words. Others may have blushed, perhaps even visibly amused.
After 16 years as Chancellor she has been to many European Council (EUCO) summits – 107 is the popular number in circulation.
Frankly, after all those emergency EU summits and the strange ‘virtual’ event, I have been told that it is difficult to be entirely sure. But we are talking about large numbers.
On Friday she sat at the table to deliberate for the last time. Also to absorb more compliments, some of them slightly offbeat.
Prime Minister Charles Michel has declared it a “monument” and said that the top without the longtime chancellor is like Paris without the Eiffel Tower.
He praised its “extreme sobriety and simplicity”, which he called “a very powerful weapon of seduction”.
“You are a compass”, he said, “a shining light of our European project”.
He tried hard, in his own way, to keep the European project on course. To keep the family together.
This week, for example, he promoted dialogue with Poland, rather than confrontation and big legal battles.
Germany’s view, in this case, is that one can try the court way – or withhold EU cash – but that the problem is ultimately political. Therefore, so is the solution.
After all, the Law and Justice Party (PiS) is in power and the next Polish elections won’t be until 2023.
But there is frustration here, among some, with Angela Merkel’s watchful patience.
The Polish rule of law conflict with the EU is a prime example where some believe this approach has not worked.
I have heard diplomats express impatience at all speeches on this issue, with the feeling or fear that it is not going anywhere, even backwards.
European federalist and former British MEP Andrew Duff actually said he was “sad” about Angela Markel.
“He has prioritized EU unity over reforms and leaves the Union more disunited than ever, with one man overboard.”
This, of course, is a reference to Brexit. The UK’s exit from the EU, Ms Merkel said at the Egmont Palace, “grieved her deeply”.
To find out more about Chancellor Merkel:
- The queen of the EU with a tarnished crown
- How will the Germans look back on Angela Merkel?
So, listening to the words of Charles Michel, choose your monument.
Angela Merkel: a steadfast and unwavering figure who was that beacon of light that has largely kept the constituent elements of the EU standing, even in the most difficult moments.
Or a cautious, even indecisive, supervisor of European affairs; so determined to keep the peace that unaddressed problems are left to rot.
In politics it is not easy to make comparisons with that mysterious concept of what could have been. The counterfactual is a blank page.
But his signature is throughout the last period of European history.
In December, at the next European Council in Brussels, we will begin to understand how things could be different.
- Ursula von der Leyen
- Angela Merkel
- European Union
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