Angela Merkel made a splash with her speech last week saying that Europe could no longer rely on the United States. She didn’t exactly say on what, but anyway it was an unusually forthright slap at Washington.
Curiously, despite the angst about the meaning of such a breech between 70-year allies, there’s less here than meets the eye.
Trump, in his usual bumptious manner, demanded that NATO countries come up with the 2 per cent of gross domestic product they promised to spend on defense. Although this has become a signature complaint of Trump’s, it was in fact a common NATO pledge made in 2014 when Barack Obama was president. Germany freely signed on. Only the US, United Kingdom, Estonia, Poland and Greece (huh?) have reached the minimum.
So Trump’s grievance was nothing new, just rudely aggressive.
Merkel seemed much more unhappy about Trump’s refusal to endorse the Paris Agreement on climate. But she went beyond the weather: “We Europeans,” she intoned, “Must really take our fate into our own hands.”
By the way, she rather brusquely removed the United Kingdom from Europe when she spoke in terms of “we Europeans” and sort of endorsed future friendly relations with this alien country across the English Channel. Presumably, she crossed the UK off the map because the UK is leaving the European Union. Someone should remind Merkel that, despite her perhaps hidden desires, the EU is not synonymous with Europe. Ask Switzerland and Norway.
Merkel is right, though, that Europe should end its long period of post-World War II infantilism in the shadow of the US, take a greater role in its own defense and put its interests first. Despite the Trump phenomenon, there are actually few issues where the EU and Washington are hopelessly at odds. It’s his nationalist-populism that is the truly upsetting thing for EU leaders.
So what are the chances of Merkel’s Make Europe Great Again policy taking concrete form soon? Zero.
First, the EU is in a political and economic mess. Merkel’s hardline on debt repayments and demands for austerity from struggling southern European countries have stymied continental economic growth.
Merkel has also proposed a two-tier EU dividing wealthy northerners form less well-off southerners. Who will want to be second rate Europeans under that plan? Not a few Europeans think that Merkel’s stewardship of Europe’s economic crisis smacked of Germany First.
Moreover, Italy and Greece have been left handling uncontrolled immigration from Africa and the Middle East, thanks in part to Merkel’s unwise 2015 decision to open Germany’s borders to migrants. Under electoral pressure, she has now closed hers, and Turkey took a 3 billion bribe from the EU to stop the flow into Greece. But the traffic just shifted west to Libya, from which Italy now faces a record influx. The EU has done nothing to help.
Meanwhile, Merkel’s unhappiness with Trump’s stand on climate change obscures the fact that Europe produces more hot air than action on the issue. Of the EU countries committed to the Paris accord, only three are keeping up with their promises to cut carbon emissions: Germany, France and Sweden. The rest use loopholes that keep the carbon spewing. In The Guardian newspaper, Femke de Jong, the EU’s policy director for Carbon Market Watch, complained that “EU politicians portraying themselves as climate leaders should put their money where their mouth is by closing loopholes in the EU’s key climate law and pushing for more ambition.”.
If Trump pulls out of the accord, the impetus to truly curb carbon production in Europe will probably collapse among already reluctant countries.
Then there’s defense. Germany and France have long tossed about creation of a non-NATO military force. The two countries operate a 5000-troop unit called the German-Franco Brigade, part of something called Eurocorps, supposedly for use by NATO or the EU. But deployments have been small and limited. It will take money to make the units viable. Isn’t that what Trump wants? Europe to spend more on defense?
Anyway, it was only last January that Merkel’s Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen met with Trump’s Defense Secretary James Mattis, all huggy-kissy about Mattis’ pledge of the US commitment to NATO and praise for Germany’s dispatch of troops to the Baltics to counter Russia.
So what’s behind the public Merkel-Trump feud in Europe? First, she is trying to rally the continent to greater political unity in the face of widespread dissatisfaction. There’s no better way than to appeal to a kind of supra-national nationalism to get faint EU hearts beating.
Secondly, in their own manner, both Trump and Merkel were playing domestic politics. Trump expressed his concern that American taxpayers were unfairly overpaying the price for European security. That’s good for his Make-America-Great-On-The-Cheap constituency.
Merkel, meanwhile, faces parliamentary elections in September. Merkel made her Europe First speech at a campaign rally. Standing up to the boorish Trump pleases all of possible German constituencies: left-wingers who don’t like him or even NATO; centrists who are pro-EU and find Trump’s hostility upsetting; and right-wing chest-thumping nationalists. Everyone in Germany seems to like the Paris agreement, so there’s that.
Probably, when Merkel wins her fourth term in office (as she will) and Trump grows up (hmmm, okay, maybe not), relations between the US and Germany will get back to congenial normality.
Carnegie Endowment on Europe and defense.
Guardian on Climate change fiasco.