I made a point of watching the joint press conference of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, held last week at the latter’s country residence of Chequers as part of Merkel’s farewell visit to Britain, as she prepares to stand down after 16 years at the helm of German and European politics.
Merkel’s 22nd visit to the UK as chancellor got all the necessary pomp that a leader of her standing deserved. She met virtually with Johnson’s Cabinet, visited the Queen at Windsor Castle and had a new academic medal created in her honor, which will award £10,000 ($13,800) annually to a British or German female scientist to celebrate women in science from both countries, since Merkel is a scientist by training.
Despite the fluff and positivity offered by Johnson, when listening to Merkel I could not help but say to myself how much the world will miss a leader of her caliber — a type that is slowly fading away in our changing world. Her leadership, composure and humanity have made her one of the most popular leaders of her country, maybe since Helmut Kohl. Next to Merkel, Johnson is overseeing an increasingly divided country due to his Brexit policy and its aftermath, which seems to be further challenging the country’s unity and standing in the world.
The meeting was mainly symbolic and ceremonial, but many issues were on the table following the tense five years since the Brexit vote, including the UK’s divorce treaties and protocols amid ongoing battles. Merkel sought to downplay those tensions and expressed interest in a new friendship and cooperation treaty between the two countries to cement their new relationship. Merkel and Johnson even discussed that their respective governments should meet annually.
In such a positive spirit, both leaders held on to pragmatism and creativity as a way to overcome the hugely divisive issue of the virtual border created in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain as a result of the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol. This protocol, which Johnson’s government negotiated and rushed through parliament to “Get Brexit Done,” remains a sensitive issue that has angered the Northern Irish Unionist community and many of Johnson’s Conservative Party members, who rightly consider border checks within the UK a burden and possibly a step that weakens the ties between Northern Ireland and the mainland. Johnson, as usual, expressed confidence that the thorny issue of Ireland would be resolved, without elaborating on how this could be done.
After discussing travel rules governing movement between the UK and Germany in this pandemic-disrupted world, little was said on their respective positions toward the challenges facing the Western world due to an assertive Russia and a more vocal China. Football was, of course, not missed by Johnson, since England was intoxicated by its recent victory that knocked Germany out of the European Championship, which was highly unusual. “I am obviously grateful to you for breaking with that tradition just for once,” he quipped, as Merkel wished the English team success in the competition.
Merkel’s next foreign stop will be Washington, where she will next week become the first European leader to visit President Joe Biden — a role usually reserved for the UK prime minister. This must have made Johnson cringe, as it is an apparent departure from the “special” transatlantic relationship that has ruled since the times of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt 75 years ago. Downing Street brushed off suggestions that Johnson would be disappointed, but the move is certain to be viewed as a snub that reflects the UK’s dwindling influence in the US in the wake of Brexit.
The outgoing chancellor’s leadership, composure and humanity have made her one of Germany’s most popular leaders.
Merkel was also cautious when she answered a question about the chances of the UK attending future EU summits, leaving the door half open to Johnson’s possible attendance based on progress in terms of smoothing out the fallouts due to the Brexit agreement.
The leadership style of the two premiers could not be more different. “Mutti,” or mother of the nation, as she is referred to in Germany, has built her reputation and popularity through finely tuned, inclusive policies at home and firm yet compassionate policies within the EU and beyond. She has even been referred to as the EU’s “Iron Lady” — a title previously bestowed on the UK’s Margaret Thatcher.
Johnson, in comparison, is yet to build his political credentials and, aside from the overwhelming majority he won in the December 2019 general election, his rush to vaccinate the British people as a strategy to defeat the pandemic is his key achievement. Such success is overshadowed, though, by his illegal prorogation of parliament in September 2019 and claims of corruption, racism and cronyism at the heart of his party and government.
I might not be a fan of Johnson and his divisive politics and leadership stance, which are like a watered-down “Trumpesque” style of populism and patriotism, but if the West is not dead yet — as declared during last month’s G7 summit in Cornwall — then the prime minister must join forces with Merkel’s successor, Biden and others and hone their leadership skills to face down an ever more assertive Russia and a more empowered China. Both of these nations have been using soft power, such as cyberattacks, the manipulation of multinational bodies and covert interventions in elections, to disrupt and weaken the current world order. It is up to the democratic West to champion the rule of law and freedom of expression in the face of all the challenges, ecological and otherwise, this planet faces.
The writer is a British-Lebanese journalist with more than 25 years’ experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy.