European leaders paid warm tributes to Angela Merkel as they wound up a European Union summit, her 107th as Germany’s chancellor and likely her last as she prepares to depart office.
Before the bloc’s leaders got down to business in Brussels on Friday, they watched a two-minute video of Merkel’s summit highlights and she was presented with a farewell gift representing the Europa building where such meetings are held.
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In a speech, European Council President Charles Michel – who chairs EU summits – described the 67-year-old – in power for 16 years – as “a monument”. He 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,” Michel said, and a standing ovation followed.
Merkel, with characteristic lack of fanfare, thanked journalists for their long nights at summits, though she offered a strong word of caution on the challenges still facing the EU, and her German successor.
“I am leaving the European Union, as far as my responsibility of federal chancellor is concerned, at a point in time where there is cause for concern,” she said.
“We have overcome many crises but we have a series of unresolved problems,” she said, citing disputes on migration, the bloc’s economy, and rule of law in EU countries.
Since attending her first meeting of EU leaders in December 2005, when Jacques Chirac was French president and Tony Blair British prime minister, Merkel has embodied the drive for a closer, more united Europe.
German political parties are now in talks following the country’s election last month.
But if they fail to form a ruling coalition by mid-December, she will be back in Brussels for another summit.
Until a new government is formed, Merkel remains chancellor in a caretaker capacity.
Several leaders spoke of how much they would miss the leader of Europe’s largest economy, in particular her 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 before 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.”
Merkel, often using the clout of juggernaut Germany to the fullest, sought to keep the EU as tightly knit as possible.
She defended national interests with equal fervour, especially during the 2007-2008 financial crisis.
She became unpopular in some Mediterranean rim countries for the austerity politics she championed after the economic disaster, and was criticised by some for her open-border policy for asylum seekers in 2015.
But on Friday, EU leaders were unanimous in their praise for her efforts during a tenure that has spanned four French presidents, five British prime ministers and eight Italian prime ministers.
“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.
Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg, a newcomer to EU summits, said Merkel was a “haven of calm” in the union.
“She has been, without doubt, a great European.”