Obama Says Merkel on ‘Right Side of History’ on Refugees

  • Bolsters German chancellor at low point in her popularity
  • Leaders agree on trade, play down differences on Syria

Obama Delivers Message of Unity to European Leaders

President Barack Obama piled praise on Chancellor Angela Merkel for being “on the right side of history” with her open-door stance on refugees, bolstering the German leader whose popularity is weighed down at home because of the influx.

In effusive remarks on what may be his last trip to Germany as president, Obama lauded his “friend and partner” Merkel for her “remarkable endurance.” He singled out her refusal to close the border in response to Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II, which has come at a political price.

QuickTake Europe's Refugee Crisis

“Perhaps because she once lived behind a wall herself, Angela understands the aspirations of those who have been denied their freedom and who seek a better life,” Obama said alongside Merkel, who grew up in communist-ruled East Germany, at a news conference in the German city of Hanover. “I know that politics around this issue can be difficult, in all of our countries.”

Even as the flow of migrants into Germany has slowed after about 1 million asylum-seekers arrived last year, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union suffered electoral losses in three German states last month, beleaguered by criticism from some members of her own bloc and the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party.

Approval Declines

A decade into her chancellorship, Merkel’s approval rating is at the lowest of her third term, which began in 2013. Support for her CDU fell three points to 33 percent in an FG Wahlen poll for broadcaster ZDF published Friday, the lowest since November 2010.

Obama and Merkel have developed strong bonds, which were underscored as they joined in urging rapid action on a U.S. trade accord with the European Union and downplayed their disagreement over creating a “safe zone” for refugees within Syria.

While negotiators in both the U.S. and Europe acknowledge that prospects for ratification of the Trans Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP, are essentially non-existent before Obama leaves office in January, the two leaders urged that work on crafting it should be completed this year.

If not, Obama said in a speech at the Hannover Messe trade show, “political transitions could mean this agreement is not concluded for quite some time.”

“TTIP is a treaty that establishes standards in a very special way, so I want to very strongly express my support for using this window of time,” Merkel told the same audience. “It won’t come back anytime soon. So let’s work on this together.”

Safe Zones

On Syria, Obama reaffirmed his doubts about creating safe zones, an idea Merkel has supported.

“As a practical matter, sadly, it is very difficult to see how it would operate short of us being willing to militarily take over a chunk of that country,” Obama said at the news conference. “And that requires a big military commitment” to protect refugees from attacks.

Acknowledging Obama’s concerns, Merkel said safe zones couldn’t be imposed from outside but would have to come out of negotiations in Geneva to end the war and would involve identifying areas where people can feel “particularly safe.” Obama said he agreed with that version of the proposal.

‘Sticking Around’

“I’m glad Angela’s still sticking around, because I think the world benefits from her steady presence,” Obama said as he completed a European tour.

Merkel, who isn’t subject to term limits, is set to complete her third term in 2017 eight months after Obama leaves office in January. She hasn’t said publicly whether she’ll run again.

“I’m concentrating completely on the tasks of 2016, which is a pretty full slate,” Merkel responded. “I’m observing the U.S. election campaign with interest.”

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