BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European leaders paid warm tributes to Angela Merkel on Friday as they wound up an EU summit, her 107th as Germany’s chancellor over nearly 16 years and probably her last, with one hailing her as a “haven of calm” in the maelstrom of EU diplomacy.
Before the leaders of the 27 European Union countries got down to business, they watched a two-minute video of her summit highlights and she was presented with a farewell gift representing the Europa building where summits are held.
In a speech, European Council President Charles Michel – who chairs EU summits – described her as “a monument”, and said gatherings of leaders without her would be like Rome without the Vatican or Paris without the Eiffel Tower.
“You are a compass and a shining light of our European project,” he concluded, and a standing ovation followed.
If German political parties now in talks following last month’s election fail to form a ruling coalition by mid-December, Merkel will be back in Brussels for another summit.
But several leaders took the opportunity on Friday to say how much they would miss the leader of Europe’s largest economy, in particular her corridor diplomacy skills that cooled tempers and brought compromises on thorny issues.
“Mrs. Merkel was kind of a compromise machine,” Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel told reporters as he went into Friday’s talks. “Very often, when we simply were stuck, Angela went ‘chuck, chuck, chuck’ and then ‘tack, tack, tack’ – and then we managed to muster ambition despite everything.”
Merkel became unpopular in Mediterranean rim countries for the austerity politics she brought to the euro zone crisis and many people disagreed with her open-border policy for asylum seekers in 2015.
Yet Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda recalled that it was thanks to her intervention last year that EU member states managed to put aside differences and agree on a common debt plan to cushion the blow of the coronavirus pandemic.
Merkel, 67, has sat at summits with four French presidents, five British prime ministers and eight Italian premiers over the years, navigating the 2007-2008 financial crisis, the 2015-16 surge in migration, Brexit and the recent pandemic downturn.
“This is somebody who for 16 years has really left their mark on Europe, helped all 27 of us make the right decisions with lots of humanity at moments which were difficult,” Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo told reporters.
A newcomer to EU summits, Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg, said the departure of the doyenne of European politics after so long would “leave a hole”.
“She was, you could say, a haven of calm within the European Union,” he said. “She has been without doubt, a great European.”
(Additional reporting by Johnny Cotton; writing by John Chalmers; editing by Philippa Fletcher)