Hopes have been rising that Germany and the US might finally be close to resolving their differences over Nord Stream 2, the pipeline bringing Russian gas to Europe. This week, Angela Merkel went out of her way to damp them down.
She said she would discuss the issue with Joe Biden on her visit to the US on Thursday — likely to be her last as Germany’s chancellor, after 16 years at the helm — but did not know whether they would actually reach agreement. “I think rather not,” she told reporters.
US-German relations have enjoyed a rapid thaw after the deep freeze of Donald Trump’s presidency. Since entering the White House, Biden has stopped Trump’s planned withdrawal of 12,000 US troops from German soil, waived sanctions against NS2 and dialled back on trade disputes that were a huge irritant between Washington and Berlin.
“I think it’s fair to say that the United States has no better partner, no better friend in the world than Germany,” Antony Blinken, secretary of state, said last month while in Berlin.
But, alongside difficult issues such as China and German defence spending, NS2 remains a bone of contention between the US and Germany.
The anger it provokes was on full view on Monday, when President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine told reporters, after talks with Merkel, that it “potentially threatens Ukraine’s security”. Biden has meanwhile called it a “bad deal for Europe”.
The German-backed pipeline, which is nearly complete, would vastly expand the volume of gas Russia can pump directly to Europe, bypassing Ukraine. Critics say it would increase Europe’s dependence on Russian energy and leave Ukraine more vulnerable to Kremlin pressure than now.
Though hopes are not high that the US president and Merkel can resolve the NS2 dispute, officials and diplomats say the two sides could work towards a “package” that addresses Ukraine’s concerns.
“It would not just be about Nord Stream 2; the whole idea is to make Ukraine less susceptible to Russian blackmail and less dependent on Russian gas,” said Nils Schmid, foreign affairs spokesman for the Social Democrats, the junior partner in Merkel’s coalition government.
One idea is a mechanism allowing Germany to shut off NS2 if Russia puts pressure on Ukraine by, say, arbitrarily cutting off the gas supplies that currently flow through Ukraine’s transit system.
“Any start-up of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline should be tied to security of supply for the eastern Europeans,” Roderich Kiesewetter, a senior foreign policy spokesman for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, recently wrote. The Russians, he said, should provide “verifiable guarantees” that they will supply Ukraine with “fixed minimum quantities of gas in the future”.
Merkel hinted on Monday that Germany would push to ensure that Russian gas continues to flow across Ukraine even after the current transit contract expires in 2024. “We are not powerless there,” she said. “We’ve promised it to Ukraine and we’ll stick to that.”
Zelensky seemed unimpressed. “I’m of the view that such guarantees . . . are too little,” he said.
A second idea to address the issue would involve close co-operation between Germany and Ukraine in renewable energy.
Berlin wants to help Ukraine become a potential supplier of “green hydrogen” for German industry — a subject discussed last March between Peter Altmaier, Germany’s economy minister, and Denys Shmyhal, the Ukrainian prime minister, in Berlin.
“We have €2bn for international hydrogen projects — we can help really effectively with that,” Altmaier tweeted in May.
Though expectations of a deal this week in Washington are low, it is clear that Biden would like to resolve the NS2 conflict before Zelensky’s planned visit to the White House later this summer.
“He [Biden] wants to take the issue off the agenda because it’s such a political hot potato domestically,” said one Zelensky adviser, pointing to the sharp criticism from both parties in the US Congress when Biden waived the NS2 sanctions.
NS2 is not the only irritant in the US-German relationship. The US is still disgruntled at Germany’s failure to spend 2 per cent of its gross domestic product on defence, a target it embraced in 2014 and has so far failed to meet.
There are also differences on China. Biden wants European support for a tougher approach towards Beijing, but the German political establishment fears being dragged into a new cold war. Merkel, who steps down as chancellor after September’s federal election, has consistently stressed the need for partnership with China.
Stephan Bierling, professor of international politics and transatlantic relations at the University of Regensburg, said Biden’s friendly gestures towards Berlin were not just motivated by goodwill. “All of this is an advance payment, to win German support for his tougher policy on China,” he said.
Biden may end up disappointed, for now. “The reality is that the Germans are not prepared to accommodate him on this,” Bierling said.
However, added Schmid, while “Merkel has made clear that she is not changing her China policy . . . it’s clear it is going to change — after she leaves power”.
Additional reporting by Roman Olearchyk in Kyiv and Aime Williams in Washington