Frau Europe Backtracks


Germany’s future lies in its Atlanticist past


M. K. Bhadrakumar

May 30, 2017


The German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s remarks on Sunday following her return home after the summit meetings of the NATO and G7 last week, voicing what could be construed as disenchantment with the United States’ trans-Atlantic leadership under President Donald Trump, created a furor in western capitals. Were those remarks made with a purpose?

What could be Merkel’s calculus? Merkel is a seasoned politician who is intensely conscious of her vast influence and high stature in the western world. Time magazine once dubbed her on its cover as “Frau Europa” (Ms. Europe). First, therefore, it is useful to examine what she said on Sunday. In Merkel’s words,

  • The times in which we can fully count on others are somewhat over, as I have experienced in the past few days. And so, all I can say is that we Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands… Of course we need to have friendly relations with the US, and with the UK, and with other neighbours, including Russia. But we have to fight for our own future ourselves, for our destiny as Europeans.

Merkel chose a Munich beer hall as her venue to speak out and she was on the campaign trail for the elections to the Bundestag in October. She was speaking to a German audience which holds the United States in poor esteem. By the way, this has nothing to do with Trump. The percentage of Germans who trusted the US plunged from 76% to 34% during the first six years of the Barack Obama presidency. (On the other hand, sixty percent of Germans admire the ex-CIA whistle blower Edward Snowden as a heroic figure.)

Trump actually inherited a complex relationship. To jog memory, Germans expelled the top CIA man in Berlin and publicised it on Twitter — and this was during the Obama presidency in 2014. But all the while, Merkel herself maintained a remarkable friendship with Obama and the German-American relations were soaring high in the recent years. There was no daylight possible between Merkel and Obama as regards the western policy to isolate Russia. On Sunday, however, Merkel knew fully well that she was talking to a receptive home audience that doesn’t trust Trump. This is one thing.

Second, just hours before she left for the NATO and G7 summits, Merkel had a visitor  in Berlin – Obama. Now, it is no secret that putting down Trump has been an obsession with Obama. To what extent Merkel’s remarks in Munich on Sunday were pre-planned we will never know. But the point is the remarks have met with an instantaneous resonance and outpouring of sympathy in the US, and they easily dovetailed with the on-going attack on Trump by the establishment. What Merkel said has become fodder for the establishment narrative that Trump is incompetent and is jeopardising America’s global leadership and damaging the relations with the allies.

However, interestingly, by Monday Merkel already began backtracking, with a close associate telling the media that her previous day’s remarks that had fuelled speculations regarding a strategic realignment by Germany were largely targeted at the German domestic audience. In fact, Merkel herself said in Berlin on Monday that the trans-Atlantic alliance with the US is of “paramount importance.”

Again, on Tuesday, in further remarks, Merkel said in Berlin that the trans-Atlantic ties “have historically been very important for us and will remain so in future.”

To my mind, Merkel made the hasty retreat after making a point in her characteristic way – namely, that she can’t be bullied. The fact of the matter is that Trump gave her hell during the recent NATO summit by calling Germany a “very bad” partner by exploiting the US market. Earlier, Trump had rattled her during her visit to Washington in March. Merkel’s German audience will like her grit and resolve to stand up to Trump (who is, by the way, of German extraction too.)

Does Germany have an option outside of the trans-Atlantic alliance? Not really — except if push comes to shove. For one thing, Germany is a trading nation and the US is its number one trading partner and the biggest market for its exports (170 billion euros in 2016.) Of course, the trade balance is heavily in Germany’s favour (49 billion euros.) The powerful German business and industry will disapprove of strains in German-American relations and Merkel (and Germany’s political class as a whole) has to be mindful of that.

Then, there are 38000 US troops deployed in Germany, the second biggest contingent after Japan. The US forces assist the German economy. The American forces in the country represent a huge influx of capital, both from the forces themselves as well as from the German businesses which supply them and benefit from their presence. And, in strategic terms, Germany is indeed the heart of NATO.

Above all, it was a matter of deliberate choice, historically speaking, that commitment to Atlanticism became a fundamental principle in German politics. The Germans remember the Nazi past. Simply put, a Germany that distances itself from its intimate partnership to the US (and the UK), at once becomes more vulnerable to Russia and, on the other hand, faces the danger of getting more polarized and afflicted by extremism, which in turn will raise the spectre of a “German Europe” replacing the post-World War II “European Germany”. Who in Europe would want to see that happen? Nobody — especially, Germans themselves.


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