By Johnny Cotton
BRUSSELS – European Union leaders will pause their meeting in Brussels on Thursday for a farewell photograph with Angela Merkel, who is attending what could be the last of more than 100 summits over nearly 16 years as chancellor of Germany.
The doyenne of European politics has sat at the conference table with four French presidents, five British prime ministers and eight Italian premiers since her first EU summit in December 2005.
Back then, as today with Poland challenging the supremacy of EU law, there was a row blazing between members of the bloc.
French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair had locked horns over the EU budget and the rebate that London received from its contributions.
With the pragmatism which came to define her approach, Merkel told reporters as she arrived then: “We want to start the negotiations now and I think we will make every effort to find an agreement.”
A skilled practitioner of corridor diplomacy, Merkel proved adept over the years at finding vital compromises to defuse EU disputes.
The crisis most closely associated with Merkel herself was the surge in migrant arrivals in 2015 when she threw open Germany’s borders to asylum seekers, mainly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
As Hungary erected a fence on its border with Serbia to keep the migrants out, Merkel arrived at a special summit that year with a call for European unity, repeating her famous “wir schaffen das”, or “we can do this” mantra.
“Faced with a great challenge, Europe cannot say ‘We can’t handle this’, that would be quite wrong,” she said.
Earlier in her chancellorship she was at the forefront of the response to the crisis in the euro zone, with austerity politics causing resentment in southern member states such as Greece.
Merkel herself often became a target during street demonstrations, caricatured on placards and posters from Athens to Lisbon, sometimes as a Nazi with a Hitler moustache.
However, Thursday’s “family photo” of leaders from the EU’s 27 countries to mark Merkel’s departure may prove premature.
German political parties have been in talks since last month’s election to form a ruling coalition and if they don’t succeed by mid-December, the 67-year-old Merkel will be back in Brussels for her 108th EU summit.