Migration crisis: Obama hails Merkel over handling of refugees
Philip Oltermann in Berlin and Patrick Wintour, Diplomatic editor
US president Barack Obama said Angela Merkel was on the right side of history with her management of the refugee crisis and praised the German chancellor as a steady and trustworthy ally with a really good sense of humour, as he embarked on the final phase of the last official European tour of his presidency.
But beneath the smiles and mutual compliments, lurked a range of pressing global issues that the two leaders will try and address at a G5 meeting with British prime minister, David Cameron, French president, François Hollande, and the Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, in Hanover on Monday afternoon.
Both Merkel and Obama expressed grave concerns about the collapse of the Syrian ceasefire during a joint press conference in Hanover on Sunday.
Syrian opposition forces left the third round of peace talks in Geneva on Friday following reports of escalating regime attacks. On Saturday, Syrian warplanes bombed the rebel-held town of Douma near Damascus and parts of Aleppo in the north, killing 23 people, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Merkel said that a visit to a refugee camp near the Turkish-Syrian border on Saturday had shown her at first hand the devastating effects a surge in attacks could have.
“We all care deeply about the tragic humanitarian crisis inside Syria,” Obama said in Hanover on Sunday afternoon. “I live with this every day: I read about it, I talk to people who have experienced or witnessed suffering.”
But the US president ruled out establishing “safe zones” inside Syria, while the German chancellor stood by the idea as part of the ceasefire plan.
“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. “And that requires a big military commitment to protect refugees from attacks.”
During Monday afternoon’s two-hour meeting, the US president and the four EU national leaders are also likely to discuss stemming the flow of migrants from Libya by placing EU naval patrols in Libyan waters.
The patrols, the most serious intervention in Libya since the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, would be capable of sending refugees back to the country.
On Libya, Obama said he did not regret America’s military intervention in the country in 2011, even though other countries including Germany had declined their involvement in the operation. “I still believe it was the right thing for us to intervene. I do believe that it was important to plan and resource what would happen next. We didn’t do it as effectively as we should have. The fact that we have a government of national accord obliges us to encourage it.”
Merkel agreed there was a duty to support Libya’s unity government but also said the country had never been a functioning state as we know it.
The meeting of the G5 will focus on the power vacuum in the Middle East and its impact on mass migration into Europe. It is likely to discuss the extent to which the EU naval mission needs the permission of Fayez al-Sarraj, the Libyan prime minister, to operate in Libyan waters.
Sarraj is struggling to win political support for his fledgling government and any sign of diminished Libyan sovereignty weakens his ability to extend his internal support.
The British foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, has also raised the possibility of military support for any Libyan government attempt to drive Islamic State from its stronghold in Sirte on the Libyan coast. He said in an interview published on Sunday he would consider a request to deploy British ground troops in Libya. “If there were ever any question of a British combat role in any form – ground, sea or air – that would go to the House of Commons,” he said.
Obama also used his Germany visit to lobby for the EU-US trade deal, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.
The trade deal is increasingly unpopular in Germany, as well as in the US, amid fears that it will benefit corporate America and not European consumers. More than 30,000 demonstrated against TTIP in Hanover on Saturday, and his visit coinciding with the city’s prestigious trade fair, will see further street protests against the president.
“What you are seeing around the world is people are unsettled by globalisation,” Obama said. “People see a plant moving and jobs lost and narratives develop that this is weakening the position of normal people.”
He added: “It is indisputable that globalisation has made our economies stronger and our businesses the most competitive in the world.” While he said he did not expect the treaty to be ratified by the end of 2016, Obama said he remained confident that a complete deal could be agreed on before the end of his presidency.
Merkel said that TTIP would help Europe’s economy to grow. “When I see how far the talks have already progressed then I believed we should hurry up,” she added.
On Sunday morning, US secretary of commerce Penny Pritzker had been lobbying for a speedy completion of the trade deal in front of members of the Federation of German Industry.
“We have a rapidly closing window of opportunity to make progress. If we do not complete TTIP negotiations before the end of the year, it could be months, maybe even years, before serious talks resume. Whether it is TTIP, the Privacy Shield, and the Digital Single Market, we must ask ourselves: what is the cost of delay? What happens to our economies, to our companies, and to our people if we fail?”