Ger­many: The cen­tre of at­ten­tion

The Ger­man chan­cel­lor has led from ‘the mid­dle’ as a se­ries of crises hit Europe, but a Trump White House has changed her stance

Muscat Daily - - BUSINESS -

When Ger­man politi­cians first talked about ‘lead­ing from the mid­dle’ peo­ple laughed, said Jür­gen Hardt, for­eign pol­icy spokesman for Ger­many’s rul­ing Chris­tian Demo­crat-led bloc. “They said, you ei­ther lead or you’re in the mid­dle. But that [phrase] de­scribes pre- cisely the kind of lead­er­ship role that Ger- many is pre­pared to as­sume.”

Although it sounds like a con­tra­dic­tion in terms, this is the ap­proach An­gela Merkel, the Ger­man Chan­cel­lor, has de­vel­oped dur­ing her 12 years in power: Bring­ing some­times re­luc- tant coun­tries to­gether to build al­liances and al­ways play­ing down Ger­many’s role. It is an ap­proach she adopted in the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis, the eu­ro­zone tur­moil, the Ukraine con- flict and Europe’s refugee cri­sis, even as Ger- many ac­cepted over 1mn mi­grants, and one that is now at the heart of Berlin’s grow­ing global role.

But with the elec­tion of US Pres­i­dent Don- ald Trump, ‘lead­ing from the mid­dle’ is get­ting more dif­fi­cult for Merkel, who is hop­ing to se- cure an­other four years in power in par­lia- men­tary polls in Septem­ber.

The US Pres­i­dent’s Amer­ica First ap­proach and his iso­la­tion­ist prom­ises to re­duce his coun­try’s in­volve­ment in mul­ti­lat­eral co-op- er­a­tion have changed the game. “It is a chal- lenge for Ger­many,” said Nor­bert Röttgen, chair­man of the Bun­destag’s for­eign af­fairs com­mit­tee. “We have to live with Amer­ica’s self-im­posed iso­la­tion.”

This was painfully on show at the G20 meet­ing in Ham­burg ear­lier this month, when Trump was iso­lated, 19 to one, on a key global is­sue - cli­mate change - in a move or­ches- trated by Ger­many.

The shift in Wash­ing­ton raises pro­found ques­tions for Berlin at a time when the Euro- pean Union (EU) is try­ing to re­vive its for- tunes, Rus­sia is re­assert­ing its in­flu­ence, China has emerged on the world stage and in- sta­bil­ity is rife, espe­cially in the Mid­dle East.

Since Trump won the elec­tion, Merkel has come un­der pres­sure to pick up the lib­eral west­ern ban­ner left be­hind by Barack Obama, Trump’s pre­de­ces­sor. But with its 20th cen­tury his­tory and its lo­ca­tion in the mid­dle of Europe, Ger­many re­mains cau­tious about as­sum­ing lead­er­ship. Merkel will not even use the word, speak­ing in­stead of Ger- many’s ‘con­tri­bu­tion’. While widely fore­cast to win a fourth term, the 63 year old leader does not want to pro­voke a pub­lic scep­ti­cal about for­eign pol­icy ini­tia­tives, with any dra- matic solo for­ays just weeks be­fore polling day.

With a de­fence bud­get of only about 1.2 per cent of gross do­mes­tic prod­uct (GDP) and with a deeply in­grained wari­ness of mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tions, Ger­many is no su­per­power. But as the EU’s dom­i­nant force and with no other coun­try set­ting the global agenda, Merkel has be­come the one fig­ure who could nudge the rest of the world into ac­tion, how­ever un­com- fort­able this role might some­times be for her and her coun­try.

“It’s not the kind of bold lead­er­ship some peo­ple in the world would like to see but it is what she does,” said Jan Techau, a for­eign pol- icy spe­cial­ist at the Amer­i­can Academy, a Berlin re­search group. “She leads, but comes late to an is­sue and is re­ac­tive.”

The Protes­tant pas­tor’s daugh­ter is not eas­ily Diplo­matic clout riled by the al­pha males who of­ten sit across the ta­ble from her, in­clud­ing Trump and his Rus­sian coun­ter­part Vladimir Putin. A video clip of Merkel and Putin speak­ing in­for­mally in Ham­burg has be­come a YouTube hit. While the sound is in­audi­ble, the Pres­i­dent is seem- in­gly ex­plain­ing a point to the Chan­cel­lor, wav­ing his fin­ger in the air. Merkel sim­ply rolls her eyes.

An unashamed ad­mirer of Amer­i­can cul- ture, she be­lieves the US re­mains the globe’s only su­per­power, closely bound with Europe on ev­ery­thing from trade to the fight against Is­lamist ter­ror­ism. But Merkel is alarmed that the US leader’s pro­tec­tion­ist threats, crit­i­cism of the NATO al­liance and his de­ci­sion to pull out of the Paris cli­mate ac­cord have cre­ated un­prece­dented ten­sions be­tween Wash­ing- ton and Europe.

“For the first time in many years, there is global co-op­er­a­tion but the US is not part of it,” said Hen­ning Riecke, a for­eign-pol­icy ana- lyst at the Ger­man Coun­cil on For­eign Rela- tions.

Merkel’s re­sponse is to seek to ex­pand the EU’s in­ter­na­tional in­flu­ence. She set out her view in a speech, just weeks be­fore the G20. In words that shook Ger­mans more used to their Chan­cel­lor’s gen­er­ally re­strained tones, she said: “The times in which we could rely fully on oth­ers are over, to some ex­tent.” Her call for ac­tion was equally di­rect - Euro­peans have to ‘re­ally take our fate into our own hands’.

Yet the Chan­cel­lor will not will­ingly break the transat­lantic bonds. She is, in part, con- strained by the legacy of the coun­try’s Nazi past. Even now For­eign Min­istry of­fi­cials oc- ca­sion­ally re­spond to ques­tions about Ger- many’s global strat­egy with the bit­ter in-house joke: ‘The last time we had a global strat­egy, it didn’t work out’.

Axel Schäfer, a par­lia­men­tary whip for the So­cial Democrats, Merkel’s coali­tion part­ners, said: “We have learnt from our his­tory. my grand­mother re­mem­bered 1914 and my mother 1939. For us the lessons are ‘never again war in Europe’ and ‘never again Auschwitz’. This makes us more care­ful than other coun­tries.”

Merkel of­ten makes the same point, speak- ing of Ger­many’s ‘spe­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity’, es- pe­cially in mat­ters of war and peace. Ger­many has moved a long way since it ab­jured for­eign mil­i­tary mis­sions and lim­ited diplo­matic ini- tia­tives af­ter the sec­ond world war. It took un­til the 1990s for Ger­many to break taboos with its first post­war for­eign mil­i­tary mis­sion - send­ing peace­keep­ers to Bos­nia - and first armed ac­tion, bomb­ing Ser­bia.

Ger­many de­clined to fight in the Iraq war, but par­tic­i­pated in the NATO-led mis­sion in Afghanistan, de­ploy­ing up to 5,300 troops, its largest for­eign force since the sec­ond world war. Last year, Merkel backed a NATO mis­sion to pro­tect east­ern Europe against pos­si­ble Rus­sian mil­i­tary ag­gres­sion - and de­ployed troops to Lithua­nia.

It first took the lead in an in­ter­na­tional cri- sis in 2014 with the Ukraine con­flict, when Merkel or­ches­trated west­ern pol­icy. She had lit­tle choice, with the US fo­cused else­where (even un­der Obama), France weak and the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment dis­tracted. Hardt said: “Our part­ners have ac­tu­ally been de­mand­ing that we play a big­ger role. That’s the de­ci­sive point - pre­vi­ously we didn’t do these things be­cause we weren’t sure that [for ex­am­ple] France or Poland wanted us to.”

Merkel’s ap­proach is not just a mat­ter of tem­per­a­ment, it also chimes with pub­lic opin- ion. Ger­mans favour a more ac­tive for­eign pol­icy, not least be­cause of the 2015-16 refugee cri­sis. In polls by the In­frat­est Dimap agency, the share of peo­ple sup­port­ing Ger- man in­ter­na­tional en­gage­ment has risen from 52 per cent on the eve of the Ukraine con­flict to 62 per cent to­day.

Yet mil­i­tary mis­sions re­main un­pop­u­lar: Just one-fifth of those polled say Ger­many should de­ploy sol­diers abroad, even with in- ter­na­tional part­ners. Lack­ing ad­e­quate air trans­port and naval sup­port, the Ger­man mil- itary is in any case in­ca­pable of re­act­ing quickly to crises. At the Amer­i­can Academy, Techau said: “We are still un­will­ing to en­gage mil­i­tar­ily. And with­out mil­i­tary en­gage­ment, we have less diplo­matic clout.”

But with Trump call­ing for the US’s 28 NATO part­ners to shoul­der a big­ger share of the de­fence bur­den, the ex­ter­nal pres­sure on Ger­many to spend more is in­tense. It is by far the largest of the 24 coun­tries that have failed to meet an al­liance de­fence spend­ing tar­get of at least two per cent of GDP.

The ar­gu­ments are re­ver­ber­at­ing through the Ger­man elec­tion cam­paign, with the So- cial Demo­cratic Party (SPD) and other politi- cal ri­vals de­nounc­ing the two per cent tar­get as ar­bi­trary. “We can’t just go from spend­ing

35bn to 60bn,” said Schäfer. “This must not be a dogma.” The Chris­tian Demo­cratic € € Union’s (CDU) Röttgen re­torts that SPD min- is­ters have en­dorsed the tar­get and are now ‘play­ing pol­i­tics’.

Merkel, like her pre­de­ces­sor as CDU head, the Frag­ile power base late chan­cel­lor Hel­mut Kohl, sees Europe above all as a ‘peace project’. She hopes to re- vive the union, amid a surge of pro-EU senti- ment driven by re­ac­tion to Brexit and Trump’s na­tion­al­ist rhetoric and be­lieves the elec­tion of Em­manuel Macron, the youngest French leader since Napoleon, of­fers the chance to restart the EU’s Franco-Ger­man mo­tor.

But EU part­ners are a frag­ile base for Ger- man power. The fi­nan­cial strait­jacket im- posed on debt-laden Greece has been crit­i­cised not only in Athens but also in Rome. Merkel’s ef­forts to re­dis­tribute refugees were blocked not only by War­saw but also by Paris.

More­over, Trump is not alone in at­tack­ing Ger­many’s huge trade sur­plus, which is likely to hit a record this year, beat­ing 2016’s

252bn. His crit­i­cisms are echoed in some of the weaker EU economies, in­clud­ing Italy and €

France, which have both called on Berlin to boost do­mes­tic in­vest­ment and gen­er­ate im- ports. A Ger­man of­fi­cial said “The Ger­man sur­plus is a cen­tral is­sue. It came up at the G20 and will come up again and again.”

This is not the only crit­i­cism that con­tin­ues to echo. Old fears about Ger­man hege­mony still sur­face in the EU, no­tably in Poland and even, oc­ca­sion­ally, in France.

“The Ger­mans never give way,” said Jaroslaw Kaczyn­ski, head of Poland’s rul­ing na­tion­al­ist Law and Jus­tice party ear­lier this year. In Berlin, Riecke said: “You can’t or­der the EU what do to.”

More­over, as Merkel en­cour­ages the EU to project its power through ex­ter­nal al­liances, she en­coun­ters prob­lems with part­ners more awk­ward than in the EU. In Turkey, for exam- ple, Berlin backed a con­tro­ver­sial EU mi­gra- tion deal with Ankara, un­der which Turkey blocked mi­grants from cross­ing to the EU in re­turn for aid and prom­ises of closer EU ties. Even when it was struck, Re­cep Tayyip Erdo- gan, Turkey’s Pres­i­dent, was be­ing ac­cused of un­der­min­ing democ­racy. His tough re­sponse to last year’s coup has ex­posed him to fur­ther con­dem­na­tion - and prompted crit­i­cism of Merkel for back­ing him. As Berlin seeks other part­ners to con­trol mi­gra­tion, for ex­am­ple in Libya, these dilem­mas could worsen.

Fur­ther afield, while co-op­er­a­tion with Trump is not easy, other big part­ners are even more dif­fi­cult. For ex­am­ple China’s Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping has cast him­self as a cham­pion of free trade, try­ing per­haps to drive a wedge be­tween Ger­many and the US. But the politi- cal gap be­tween Europe’s largest democ­racy and the world’s big­gest one-party state runs deep.

Riecke said: “Out­side the EU, form­ing coali- tions with, for ex­am­ple, China is more diffi- cult. There is not the same trust that there is, even now, with the US.”

The same ap­plies to Putin’s Rus­sia. As a Rus­sian-speaker raised in Com­mu­nist East Ger­many, Merkel knows Putin bet­ter than any other west­ern leader. But this has not cre­ated much warmth. Quite the con­trary, she in­sists that a thaw can come only with the im­ple- men­ta­tion of the Minsk peace ac­cord to re- solve the Ukraine stale­mate.

Röttgen said: “Rus­sia is re­assert­ing it­self and it ex­plic­itly re­jects west­ern rules . China too ap­plies its own rules. Ger­many and Eu- rope can do more but there is noth­ing that can sub­sti­tute the US.” So even with Trump in the White House, en­gag­ing with the US re- mains a pri­or­ity. And, although Merkel scorns wish­ful think­ing, some in Berlin hope Trump will be voted out in 2020.

Away from the west­ern al­liance, com­fort- able part­ners are hard for the chan­cel­lor to find. But she has to deal with the world as it is, not as she might like it to be.

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