Even Critics Praise Merkel as Chancellor’s Reign Draws to an End

Joao Lima

(Bloomberg) -- Portugal’s Socialist Prime Minister Antonio Costa is not a natural ally for the conservative Angela Merkel but as Europe starts to prepare for life without the four-term German chancellor he’s clear that her influence remains vital for the continent’s future.

Merkel has not always been universally admired or respected in the 14 years since she took office, particularly during the financial turmoil a decade ago when southern European nations like Portugal and Greece were plunged into crisis. Many blamed her and her former finance minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, for exacerbating the pain by insisting on strict adherence to tighter European Union budget rules.

But Costa’s praise for the 65-year-old Merkel, the EU’s longest-serving leader whose latest term is due to end in September 2021, echoes that of heads government as diverse as former Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and U.S. President Donald Trump.

“For Europe, Angela Merkel is very important,” Costa, 58, said in an interview this week at the prime minister’s palace in Lisbon. “It’s important for all of us to benefit from her very special experience, because no one has been in the role for as much time.”

Merkel’s ability to build bridges and bring tricky negotiations to a successful conclusion could be key in unlocking a deal on the EU’s trillion-euro ($1.1 trillion) budget, said Costa, whose nation is among those battling to prevent cuts in funding.

The recent exit of Britain, a net contributor, from the bloc has deepened the rift between richer and poorer states, which see the common budget as a key tool to help them catch up with wealthier countries. Portugal is among nations from southern and eastern Europe that wants richer peers to contribute more to make up for the U.K.’s withdrawal.

Leaders including Merkel and Costa will gather in Brussels at the end of next week to try to thrash out a deal on a long-term spending plan.

“We need a compromise as soon as possible,” Costa said in a room filled with modern Portuguese artwork and furniture. “The main question is to know if Europe wants to have a budget in line with its ambitions, or a budget that can’t deliver what we display as European ambitions. We can’t over-promise and under-deliver.”

Portugal has enjoyed relative stability following the euro-area debt crisis, in contrast to countries such as neighboring Spain, which went through four elections in as many years. Costa is leading his second minority government and the country’s established parties haven’t been challenged by populists, as elsewhere in Europe.

“The key explanation is that we have preserved the capacity of the traditional parties to create alternatives for government,” Costa said.

“If you don’t have an alternative in the traditional party system, naturally citizens try to find alternatives outside the traditional party system,” he added. “In my point of view, this is why radicalism is growing in some European countries.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Joao Lima in Lisbon at jlima1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chad Thomas at cthomas16@bloomberg.net, Iain Rogers, Nikos Chrysoloras

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