Much has been said about Donald Trump leaving his successor Joe Biden with last minute foreign policy decisions to preempt new Biden’s own priorities.
Who would have guessed that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who welcomed Trump’s replacement by the more likeminded Biden, would have done something similar?
A Future of all smiles?
Take Biden’s possible efforts to change US and global trade terms with China. He wanted to deal in concert with the EU and other allies.
Instead, Merkel moved quickly to sign a new trade deal with China in the name of the EU. Negotiations had been going on for seven years, but both Merkel and China’s president-for-life Xi Jinping wanted one done before Biden took office Jan. 20. A top Biden aide openly asked her to wait. On December 22, Biden’s national security advisor warned European allies to delay any big dealings with China until they held “early consultations” with the new administration over “our common concerns about China’s economic practices.”
The request was ignored.
And make no mistake, the China agreement was pushed largely by Merkel. Among EU national leaders, only France’s Emmanuel Macron was on the Zoom call that was the backdrop for announcing the China deal. That the EU has become a fig leaf for German decision making was also evident in lack of open debate within the EU itself, where the commissioner, Ursula von der Leyen, is German , as is the group’s trade department director Sabine Weyand.
Since the deal was struck, Biden’s team has remained quiet, but not so European leaders. Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau complained in a Tweet that, “We need more consultations and transparency bringing our transatlantic allies on board. A good, balanced deal is better than a premature one.”
Several countries expressed concern that the China deal was a gift to Xi at a time when he has destroyed Hong Kong’s democratic autonomy and stands accused of overseeing vast repression of China’s Muslim minority Uigher population, including the operation of concentration camps and practice of slave labor. “Well, we give China a credit signal at a time of major human rights concerns,” said Italy’s Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs Ivan Scalfarotto.
Translation: Does the EU stand for human rights or not?
American commentators blamed Trump, who treated Merkel with contempt, for Germany’s rush into China’s embrace. Merkel’s own suggestion in 2018 that the US can no longer be trusted plays into that argument. But that stand suggests Germany has no exclusive national interests, in particular Germany First policies to buttress its own economy.
Germany is the largest EU exporter to China in both absolute and relative terms. German exports to China topped €110 billion in 2018, equal to 7% of all German exports. German companies lead the EU in investment inside China, worth €76 billion, that is half of the entire EU’s total. The Germans are heavily investing in producing electric cars in China.
The trade deal was not the only post-Trump downfall decision that makes concerns for Biden. Merkel’s cabinet also approved a measure to allow Huawei, China’s telecom giant, to participate in Germany’s 5-G mobile phone network. The US, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Taiwan have decided to ban and/or phase out the company’s products within their mobile networks. The United Kingdom cut Huawei’s share in its new network to 35 per cent.
In plowing ahead on a Huawei decision, Merkel resisted advice even from Germany’s own intelligence services.
Two months before the American election, Merkel rejected another Trump Administration desire: to stop the undersea gas pipeline from Russia directly to Germany. Trump, along with several Eastern European states, objected on the grounds that the pipeline, known as Nord Stream would leave European countries that border Russia, and especially Ukraine, vulnerable to natural gas blackmail. Russia could cut supplies to former Warsaw Pact and Soviet republics including Ukraine and the Balkan states without upsetting Berlin.
Nonetheless, Merkel gave the go-ahead to completing the project, which was expected to reach German shores this year. The pipeline still faces a major obstacle: the US Congress passed a measure in its latest defense budget, to sanction any company taking part in the construction. Germany reacted furiously. “We do not need to talk about European sovereignty if that is understood as us doing everything in future the way Washington wants us to,” Maas said in late December.
Biden officials have said the US will lift anti-Nord Stream sanctions if Europe—meaning Germany—suspends construction while Biden tries to halt it completely or find some other solution. Stay tuned: Gazprom, the mostly Russian-government owned gas giant that stands to benefit most, announced on Jan. 19 that the project might have to be “suspended.”
In short, Merkel’s Germany First policies is running into yet unclear Biden ideas about US attitudes toward Russia—and future relations with Germany. A similar quandary faces Merkel’s designated successor, Armin Laschet, who will have to decide on the tightness of Germany’s ties to the US.
An overview of Merkels’ China policy from Foreign Policy: https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/12/31/what-merkel-really-thinks-about-china-and-the-world/
European complaint about US bullying: https://www.euractiv.com/section/energy-environment/news/nord-stream-2-europe-stays-quiet-while-us-tramples-over-eu-sovereignty/
Reuters on Nordstream latest:https://www.reuters.com/article/idUSR4N2IR02B
Future possibilities: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-01-17/merkel-s-successor-needs-to-strike-right-tone-with-biden-and-eu