domingo, 28 de mayo de 2017

What Angela Merkel meant at the Munich beer hall

German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Trudering fest on Sunday in Munich.

Spoiler alert: The German chancellor didn’t just throw in the towel on the alliance with America.

Did Angela Merkel just draw a line under the Western postwar order?

In a word, Nein.

A comment by Merkel on a campaign stop in a Bavarian beer tent on Sunday sent the liberal Twittersphere into a frenzy (Edward Snowden called it “an era-defining moment.”) Merkel, mentioning both the U.S. and Brexit, told her audience it was time for Europe to “take our fate into our own hands.”

“The era in which we could fully rely on others is over to some extent,” Merkel said, before adding, “That’s what I experienced over the past several days.”

The qualifiers “fully” and “some extent” weren’t unintentional; with this German chancellor, little is.

So what at first listen may sound like a major departure from Germany’s commitment to the transatlantic alliance is, in fact, consistent with Merkel’s rhetoric ever since Donald Trump was elected U.S. president. It’s also in keeping with her agenda to push European integration forward, a goal she believes the election of Emmanuel Macron as French president has put within reach. And it may signal that Merkel, for the first time in her dozen years in power and approaching her fourth election in September, sees Europe as a vote winner.

Merkel has been subtly distancing herself from Trump for months. Addressing Europe’s transatlantic ties back in January, she said: “There are no unlimited guarantees for close cooperation with us Europeans. That’s why I’m convinced that Europe and the EU will have to learn to take more responsibility in the future.”

She added that it would be “naïve” for Europe to “always depend on others to resolve problems in our neighborhood.”

While timing is everything in politics and the juxtaposition of Merkel’s comments just hours after a divisive G7 summit is notable, it would be a mistake to read too much into them.

Were Merkel to signal a German pivot away from the U.S., she would hardly choose a Bavarian beer party as the venue.

Like any good politician, Merkel knows how to play to her audience. And in Germany, a healthy dose of U.S. criticism always goes down well, especially in the age of Trump — and as an added benefit, just a few months before a national election. Recall that Gerhard Schröder used German distaste for George W. Bush and a still-to-come war in Iraq to help him to an electoral romp in 2002. And for her part, Merkel hasn’t shied from embracing a still popular America president in Germany, Barack Obama, whom she hosted in Berlin only on Thursday, the same day she met Trump in Brussels. There’s a difference between German chancellors’ views about the U.S. and the person in charge at any given time.

It’s possible that Sunday marked the beginning of a tectonic shift away from the U.S., but it’s also too early to say. Speaking on Sunday, European Council President Donald Tusk suggested the EU has little to gain from going ahead on its own — even if it wanted to.

That said, were Merkel, ever a cautious leader, to signal a German pivot away from the U.S., she would hardly choose a Bavarian beer party as the venue.

While it’s no secret that Merkel and Trump don’t see eye-to-eye on several fronts, including on climate and trade, the German leader, a long-term strategist, would no more call Germany’s relationship with the U.S. into question than she would her country’s European commitment.

For better or worse, the U.S., both in terms of trade and security, is Germany’s indispensable partner, a reality even Trump is unlikely to change any time soon. Whether on Russia, or NATO, or even the Paris climate change pact that spoiled the G7 party in Sicily, Merkel has time and again made clear that in her view, no matter who sits in the White House, Europe needs America.

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