US President Joe Biden and outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel amicably addressed policy disagreements at the White House on Thursday amid Washington’s efforts to restore confidence in its transatlantic alliances following four turbulent years under former president Donald Trump.
Although they addressed differences over China, the Nordstream 2 pipeline from Russia and the US travel ban on Germans due to Covid, both leaders sought to emphasise common interests and shared values in a communique called the “Washington Declaration” to serve as a basis to strengthen ties between the two Nato allies going forward.
The visit, complete with a state dinner, served as something of a farewell reception for Ms Merkel who has now worked with four US presidents during her almost 16 years in office.
“Chancellor Merkel has been here frequently over the past 16 years,” Mr Biden said at the top of the press conference following their meeting. “As a matter of fact, she knows the Oval Office as well as I do.”
“Hers is an exemplary life of ground-breaking service to Germany. And I mean it, from the bottom of my heart, on behalf of the entire world.”
Mr Biden stressed that the two countries would remain “united in our commitment to addressing democratic backsliding, corruption, phoney populism in the European Union or among candidates for EU membership or anywhere we find it in the world".
“We will stand up for democratic principles and universal rights when we see China or any other countries undermine free and open societies.”
Although Germany has sought to deepen economic ties with China despite the US' more hawkish approach, Ms Merkel also singled out China while addressing reporters — providing a unified public message.
She also stressed the need to stand for “free, democratic societies” and human rights.
“There is a lot of common understanding that China, in many areas, is our competitor, that trade with China needs to have a level playing field so that we all play by the same rules.”
Ms Merkel has also managed to ward off US sanctions on the Nordstream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany. While Mr Biden pressed her on the issue during their meeting, he has resisted intense bipartisan pressure from Congress to sanction the pipeline.
The US accuses Russia of using the pipeline to sidestep exporting its gas through Ukraine.
“Good friends can disagree, but by the time I became president, it was 90 per cent complete, and imposing sanctions did not seem to make any sense,” said Mr Biden. “It made more sense to work with the chancellor based on how she’d proceed, whether or not Russia would try to essentially blackmail Ukraine in some way.”
Ms Merkel also pushed Mr Biden on the US travel ban on Europe’s Schengen Area, which includes Germany. Mr Biden’s Covid team attended the meeting to address the issue, and the president said he would have updates on the travel ban over “the next several days".
Germany aside, Mr Biden also addressed the developments in Cuba and Haiti over the last several days.
Mr Biden doubled down on the hard-line US sanctions policy on Cuba that Mr Trump reinstated following former president Barack Obama’s effort to normalise ties with Havana.
And while the Biden administration initially indicated that it would at least allow Cubans in the US to send remittances back to the island, the recent protests in Havana over deteriorating economic conditions, frequent shortages and the lack of access to Covid vaccines appear to have changed the president's mind.
“I would not do that now because the fact is it’s highly likely that the regime would confiscate those remittances or big chunks of it,” said Mr Biden.
He noted that he would send “significant amounts” of Covid vaccines to Cuba if he had assurances that “an international organisation would administer those vaccines and do it in such a way that average citizens would have access to those vaccines".
The president also noted that he would not send US troops to Haiti following the assassination of Jovenel Moise, despite a request from Port-au-Prince to do so.
“We are only sending American Marines to our embassy to make sure that they are secure and nothing is out of whack at all,” said Mr Biden. “The idea of sending American forces to Haiti is not on the agenda at the moment.”