German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Joe Biden have many issues to try to work through. Photo: AFP / Maurizio Gambarini / dpa

A caveat must be added to the famous line by Lord Hastings Lionel Ismay, NATO’s first secretary-general and Winston Churchill’s chief military assistant during the Second World War, that the purpose of the alliance was “to keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”

The alliance is no longer adequate to pin Germany “down” on the dissection table. The multipolarity in world politics creates space for a powerhouse like the reunified Germany to raise its head above the parapet of big-power politics.

Germany has outgrown the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as a rising world power. 

Quite obviously, Germany’s lack of enthusiasm for NATO’s eastward expansion blocked Washington’s agenda for Ukraine’s and Georgia’s induction into the alliance as full members. Berlin doesn’t want to complicate Europe’s relations with Russia.

Ukraine and Georgia were not invited even as “observers” to the recent summit in Brussels despite the 2008 Bucharest summit’s formal decision on their membership. 

At the end of the day, Germany also moderated the Joe Biden administration’s push to drag the alliance to the Asia-Pacific region.

Curiously, on July 5, within three weeks of the European summit with the US and the NATO and Group of Seven summits, Chinese President Xi Jinping had a three-way video call with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel where he expressed the hope that China and Europe would expand cooperation to respond better to global challenges.  

This was the third such “summit” in the past three months and reinforced Beijing’s belief that European countries have not tied themselves to the US chariot and although there are many similarities in terms of values and systems between the US and the European Union, the latter is attaching more importance to strategic autonomy. 

Indeed, the latest efforts by Merkel and Macron to organize another EU-Russia summit would have also caused irritation in Washington. 

Therefore, the big question surrounding Merkel’s forthcoming visit to Washington on Thursday will be how far Washington wields power to make Germany sacrifice for US hegemony any more. The salience of the visit will be that it illuminates the diversity and flexibility of Germany’s thoughts on global issues. 

Merkel’s July 15 visit to the White House will mark only the third time a foreign leader will have met with Biden in Washington since he became president – and she will be the first European leader to do so.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Friday that Biden hopes to affirm “deep and enduring” ties between the NATO allies while also tackling some areas of disagreement.

Pipes for the Nord Stream 2 Baltic Sea gas pipeline are loaded onto a ship at the Port of Mukran on June 1, 2021. Photo: AFP / Stefan Sauer / dpa

A deal on Nord Stream 2? 

Psaki called it an “official working visit” aimed at shoring up the partnership between the two countries and identifying ways to strengthen cooperation, while an official in Berlin said: “From the German perspective, this will be a working visit.” 

The laundry list is long – Biden’s decision to end the forever Afghan war, Covid-19, trade issues, Nord Stream 2. In practical terms, Nord Stream 2 will be a heavily loaded issue, given its profound impact on German-Russian relations for decades to come, Europe’s energy security, Moscow’s current tensions with the EU and the United States’ trans-Atlantic leadership itself. 

On Sunday, the managing director of Nord Stream 2 AG, which is running the pipeline project, and its German chief executive, Matthias Warnig, disclosed in an interview with the Handelsblatt newspaper that the construction is 98% completed and may be finished in August. 

According to Warnig, three months will be needed to receive various certificates and undergo trials. The process has kicked off in respect of the pipeline’s first line that has already been completed. The goal is “to commission [the project] already this year,” he noted. 

Importantly, Warnig stressed: “Transit via Ukraine will still be part of Russian gas transportation to Europe even after 2024. I have not a slightest doubt.” (Significantly, Merkel invited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to visit Berlin in the run-up to her US trip.)

In May, the Biden administration took a nuanced step to waive sanctions on Swiss-based Nord Stream 2 AG and its German CEO. The waiver gave Berlin and Washington three more months, until mid-August, to reach an agreement on Nord Stream 2.

Russian President Vladimir Putin exuded confidence in a TV interview last month when he said that “it was already pointless to resist the construction of the pipeline and to impose sanctions. Because we have already completed it, the first branch is ready. It seems like [the US] has abandoned these sanctions.” 

The question of what to do with the pipeline still could prove the first big headache for the next German government. Merkel pushed back at the heavy US pressure to abandon the project, but she is retiring in September. Polls suggest that the elections to the Bundestag in September may yield big gains for the Green Party, which opposes the Nord Stream 2 project.

Suffice to say, the Biden-Merkel meeting could provide important momentum for getting to a deal on Nord Stream 2. Berlin hopes to resolve the issue by August and on his part, Biden is also eager to improve ties with Germany, which is a key ally to deal with major global issues of climate change, post-pandemic economic recovery and relations with Iran and China.

An image of medical syringes in front of the logos of various companies involved in producing Covid-19 vaccines. Photo: AFP / Artur Widak / NurPhoto

TRIPS waiver a bridge too far?

From the Indian perspective, there is going to be keen interest in the outcome of the Biden-Merkel talks in regard to the contentious issue of a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights for the Covid-19 vaccines being considered by World Trade Organization members to help end the pandemic. 

Last October, India and South Africa floated the proposal to waive IP rights at the WTO’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Council. 

The Biden administration has expressed backing for the waiver. But Germany poured cold water on the idea, maintaining that the greatest constraints on the production of vaccines were not intellectual property, but increasing capacity and ensuring quality.

A German statement in May said: “The protection of intellectual property is a source of innovation and must remain so in the future.” 

Evidently, the European industry’s heavyweights – home to major players such as BioNTech and AstraZeneca – resist the waiver. In early June, the European Commission, under German influence, submitted an alternative plan to the WTO, proposing other measures such as limits on export restrictions and the compulsory licensing of the patents in some circumstances.

However, the ground beneath the feet somewhat shifted on June 10 when the European Parliament backed the TRIPS waiver in relation to Covid-19 vaccines, treatments and equipment. The European Parliament amendment was passed by 355 votes to 263, with 71 abstentions, largely following left-right lines, with leftists such as the Socialists and Democrats backing the waiver and those on the right opposing it. 

Of course, the Commission is not bound by the European Parliament’s amendment but the vote sends a strong political message nonetheless: Europe is gradually shifting to the pro-waiver camp. Meanwhile, Germany is increasingly lonely in its opposition to the waiver, as France flipped lately and crossed over to the patent-suspension camp.

The tide seems to be turning, although there is still a long way to go, as the waiver camp also has multiple voices, and appearances such as France’s can be deceptive.

French President Emmanuel Macron (C), German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) after their meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, March 26, 2019. Photo: AFP via Anadolu Agency / Julien Mattia

Merkel may have had unexpected support from an influential quarter in Washington when World Bank president David Malpass (a Trump administration nominee, by the way) waded into the controversy, saying: “We don’t support that [TRIPS waiver] for the reason that it would run the risk of reducing the innovation and the R&D in that sector.” 

To be sure, on Friday, when asked if Biden would seek to persuade Merkel to support the patent waiver, Psaki was evasive. She would only say Biden is a “strong proponent” of the waiver, going on to add: “It’s one tool in our toolbox. There are a number of others, including increasing manufacturing.”

That sounded closer to Merkel’s thinking.

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.