BRUSSELS — Angela Merkel is still Germany’s chancellor, and might be still when European Union leaders meet again, yet they gave her a big farewell party at Friday’s EU summit. Even Barack Obama made a cameo video appearance.
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.
Merkel has been the embodiment of the drive for a stronger united Europe for years since she attended her first meeting of EU leaders 16 years ago, at a time when Jacques Chirac was still the French president and Tony Blair the British prime minister.
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."
Former U.S. president Obama was equally gushing. “So many people, girls and boys, men and women, have had a role model who they could look up to through challenging times,” he said. “I know because I am one of them.”
“Danke schön,” he added.
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.
"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."
n the end, though, she embodied what the EU summit itself all too often is. “Frau Merkel was a compromise machine,” said Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel.
So, many will be sad to see her go. “Your spirit and experience will remain with us,” said Michel. “You are not leaving us.”
Michel could still be right. Merkel did not put herself up for re-election in last month’s German polls and her CDU/CSU Christian Democrats fared so badly that they will likely end up in opposition.
The left-leaning SPD, Greens and free-market FDP announced that they want to get their coalition government in place in the week starting Dec. 6.
Until then, Merkel remains chancellor in a caretaker capacity, and only a few days’ delay could well see her come back to Brussels for the mid-December summit.