Saturday 24 February 2018

Germany will find its power tested by election result

German Chancellor Angela Merkel. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt
German Chancellor Angela Merkel. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt

Noah Barkin

Donald Trump's victory has been a shock for America's major partners around the world. But perhaps nowhere has the blow been more painful than in Germany, a country that under Angela Merkel has come to see itself as a bastion of openness and tolerance.

On virtually every issue of importance to the German chancellor, Mr Trump seems likely to turn Washington from an ally into an adversary.

Although his election is being seen as a rejection of the political establishment and liberal democratic values in general, it represents a very personal blow to Ms Merkel, Europe's most powerful leader.

It heaps more responsibility on her at a time when she is nearing an announcement on whether she will run for a record-tying fourth term as chancellor next autumn.

Despite the toll that 11 years of non-stop crisis fighting has taken on her, Ms Merkel's aides say that Mr Trump's victory and Britain's decision in June to leave the European Union have, if anything, reinforced her determination to continue.

Germans have been falling out of love with the United States since George W Bush invaded Iraq more than a dozen years ago. However, the election of Barack Obama saw him hailed as the heir to John F Kennedy, who came to a divided Berlin in 1963, and reassured Germans with the word "Ich bin ein Berliner". Mr Obama, who developed a close relationship with Ms Merkel in his eight years in office, will make what promises to be a bittersweet farewell visit to Berlin this week.

This won't stop Ms Merkel, a restrained politician who prefers small steps to giant leaps, from trying to work with the brash Mr Trump.

She is a pragmatist who has maintained dialogue with strongmen like Vladimir Putin and Tayyip Erdogan through crises in Germany's relationship with Russia and Turkey.

But Ms Merkel's statement on Wednesday, in the aftermath of Mr Trump's election, was telling. In it, she set conditions for co-operation, a provocative message from a close ally to the democratically elected leader of the US.

Ms Merkel's cabinet colleagues have been far more outspoken. Germany's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has denounced Mr Trump as a "preacher of hate".

One of Ms Merkel's biggest foreign policy successes as chancellor was rallying the European Union's disparate 28 member states behind sanctions against Russia in response to its intervention in eastern Ukraine.

If Mr Trump follows through on his promise to forge a closer relationship with Mr Putin, the transatlantic and European front against Russia would crumble, leaving her Putin policy in tatters.

Ms Merkel was also the driving force in Europe behind the ambitious trade deal between the EU and US, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

That agreement, still in the negotiation phase, seems sure to die under the president-elect, whose protectionist promises, should they become reality, would hit few countries harder than Germany, whose economic strength depends heavily on the openness of the global trading system.

Mr Trump has promised to do what Ms Merkel and her veteran Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble have resisted for years: take advantage of an ultra-low interest rate environment to invest vast amounts in improving infrastructure.

It was ironic that in the same week Mr Trump was elected, Germany was finalising a 2017 budget that is a model of fiscal restraint. How long Mr Schaeuble will be able to stick to his cherished balanced budget with Mr Trump aiming to put Europe under economic pressure, is unclear.

However, one thing does seem clear: in Mr Trump, Germany faces its biggest test since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Irish Independent

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