Biden and Merkel vow to defend against Russian aggression in White House meeting

Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Joe Biden hosted Angela Merkel at the White House on Thursday for bilateral meetings as the outgoing German chancellor prepares to step down, in a visit that marked Biden’s latest attempt to strengthen relationships with US allies.

The two leaders met in the Oval Office and later held a joint press conference. Biden and Merkel vowed to work together to defend against Russian aggression and stand up to anti-democratic actions by China, and also spoke to the importance of the US-German alliance.

Biden said he had also reiterated his concerns about the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a major, nearly complete pipeline that will run from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea, but he and Merkel were united in their belief that Russia should not use energy as a weapon.

“We stand together and will continue to stand together to defend our eastern flank allies at NATO against Russian aggression,” Biden said during their joint news conference.

Related: No sign of thaw between Russia and US ahead of Geneva summit

He said both countries would stand up for democratic principles and universal rights when they saw China or any other country working to undermine a free and open society.

The president also said he and Merkel discussed the ongoing pandemic travel restrictions, and when it will be safe to lift the ban on travel from Europe to the US.

“It’s in the process now. And I’ll be able to answer that question to you within the next several days, what is likely to happen,” Biden said, adding that he had asked his administration’s coronavirus team to assess when the restrictions should be lifted.

Biden used the briefing to pay tribute to the German leader, as she nears the end of a political career that has spanned four American presidencies. “On a personal note, I must tell you I will miss seeing you at our summits,” Biden said as he stood by Merkel, the second-longest serving chancellor in Germany’s history. “I truly will.”

Merkel’s visit underscored Biden’s efforts to strengthen US alliances, after four years of Donald Trump’s divisive leadership. Biden, 78, and Merkel, 66, have known and worked with each other for years, and see eye to eye on a string of broader matters. Both leaders want to strengthen the transatlantic relationship that suffered under the former president’s frequent, withering criticism of close US allies, and vowed to do so going forward.

“The cooperation between the United States and Germany is strong and we hope to continue that, and I’m confident that we will,” Biden said as they began an Oval Office meeting that lasted well over an hour.

“I value the friendship,” said Merkel, the first European leader to visit Biden at the White House, highlighting America’s role in building a free and democratic Germany after the second world war.

Merkel started her day with a working breakfast with the vice-president Kamala Harris, and Harris’ office said the two had a “very candid discussion”.

But personal warmth notwithstanding, the US-German relationship is now at a pivot point as Merkel, who is not seeking another term in September elections, nears her departure from office. The two leaders do not have much time to work together to strengthen ties between the world’s largest and fourth-largest economies, and there are concerns on both sides about how the two nations will negotiate growing disagreements.

The United States has long argued that the Nord Stream 2 project will threaten European energy security by increasing the continent’s reliance on Russian gas and allowing Russia to exert political pressure on vulnerable eastern and central European nations, particularly Ukraine. But Biden recently waived sanctions against German entities involved in the project, a move that angered many in Congress.

Merkel sought to downplay the differences, and to stress that the pipeline was in addition to – and not meant to displace – Ukraine pipelines.

Germany and the United States also disagree over the wisdom of partnering with China on business projects, temporary patent waivers aimed at speeding global Covid-19 vaccine production and ongoing restrictions on Europeans traveling to the United States.

On Thursday evening, Merkel and her husband will attend a dinner hosted by the Bidens at the White House. Guests include US lawmakers, former secretaries of state Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton and the Republican leaders of the US House of Representatives and Senate, the White House said.

Back home, Germany and neighboring Belgium dealt with the aftermath of heavy flooding that left more than 30 people dead and dozens missing. “My sympathy goes to the relatives and of the dead and missing,” Merkel said during the press briefing.

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