After nearly 16 years and 107 EU summits, Angela Merkel, the outgoing chancellor of Germany, might have expected more from her fellow leaders than a glass paperweight and praise for being a “monument”.
But at what was expected to be Merkel’s final meeting in Brussels, touching on issues ranging from energy prices to Poland’s laissez faire attitude to EU law, the former US president Barack Obama at least offered a little glamour to proceedings in a surprise appearance in a farewell video.
“Thanks to you, the centre has held through many storms,” Obama said in the video aired in the summit room in the egg-shaped Europa building in Brussels. “So many people, girls and boys, men and women, have had a role model who they could look up to through challenging times. I know because I am one of them. Danke schon.”
Despite her well-known disapproval of a fuss, Merkel was given a standing ovation at the end of the two-day meeting by her peers. She was also presented with a glass paperweight reproduction of the Europa building in which she has spent so many late nights and early mornings.
When Merkel attended her first EU summit in December 2005, her fellow leaders included Tony Blair. Earlier this week, Merkel, the EU’s problem fixer, had spoken of her deep hurt over Brexit.
At a post-summit press conference on Friday, she warned her peers that the bloc, rocked recently by the Polish government’s claim of being treated as a province in relation to negative rulings about changes to its judiciary, needed to wrestle with a fundamental question.
“There is the issue of the independence of justice, but also underlying [the question] ... which way is the European Union heading, what should be a European competence and what should be tackled by nation states?” she said. “If you look at Polish history, it is very understandable that the question of defining their national identity plays a big role … which is a different historical situation than the one countries find themselves in that have had democracy since world war two.”
The comments reflected Merkel’s role throughout her tenure as a seeker of compromise.
In an address to her and the other 26 EU heads of state and government, the European Council president, Charles Michel, offered his own idiosyncratic reflections.
“Your style is your coolness,” he said. “You are a monument.” EU summits, Michel said, “without Angela is like Rome without the Vatican or Paris without the Eiffel tower”.
The former Belgian prime minister was full of praise for her “extreme sobriety and simplicity”. He added: “This is a very powerful seduction weapon.”
“I remember our first encounter,” Michel said. “You were just very interested in hearing me explain the details of our coalition agreement and the complexity of the Belgian institutions.”
Merkel’s summit appearance was also marked by a special “family photo” of the assembled heads of state and government. It will, however, only prove to be her last if talks over the makeup of the next German government bear fruit before the next scheduled meeting on 16 December.