ROME — Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel met Thursday with Pope Francis and Italian Premier Mario Draghi, who paid tribute to her “calm, determined” leadership even during difficult years for Europe and the common currency.
Merkel herself has called this her farewell bilateral trip to Italy as chancellor, and her unusually long 45-minute papal audience and glowing tribute from Draghi indicated her Roman counterparts wanted to pay their respects, too.
Merkel and her outgoing government will stay in office on a caretaker basis until a new administration is in place, a process that could take weeks or months.
Merkel told reporters she talked politics, climate change and clergy sex abuse during the visit to the Vatican and a meeting at a Jesuit-run academic program for child protection and safe environments that Germany has supported.
She was wrapping up the day with an evening peace prayer at the Colosseum attended by the pope and organized by the Rome-based Sant’Egidio community.
With Merkel by his side, Draghi noted that this might well be their last bilateral meeting, and used the occasion to recall how Merkel had supported him during the 2012 European debt crisis. Draghi earned his “Super Mario” nickname in part for declaring that the European Central Bank was prepared to do “whatever it takes” within its mandate to preserve the euro.
During those years, Draghi said at a press conference, “Merkel strongly supported the independence of the central bank, even when we were attacked for the expansionary policies necessary to defend the integrity of the single currency, avert the risks of deflation and support recovery,” Draghi said, adding he was personally grateful to her for her support.
Merkel returned the praise, calling Draghi a “significant and decisive protector of the euro.”
She made clear that she stands by her approach to the eurozone debt crisis, during which she drew criticism in struggling parts of Europe for insisting on tough conditions in exchange for aid.
“I can say for myself that, in 16 years, I always acted to the best of my knowledge and conscience,” Merkel said. Looking forward, she said it will become increasingly clear that Europe isn’t yet sufficiently competitive regarding innovations and will need more “global players” — companies that can compete on the global market.
Merkel offered reassurances that the new German government won’t take as long to put together as her outgoing administration, which took office nearly six months after the 2017 election.
“It will surely be quicker than was the case with the last government, I am firmly convinced of that,” she said.
On Thursday, the center-left Social Democrats, the environmentalist Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats were holding a first round of exploratory talks on forming a possible coalition. If they eventually succeed, that would send Merkel’s center-right Union bloc into opposition after its worst-ever showing in Germany’s Sept. 26 election.