Thursday’s German National Day had special significance given its coincidence with the upcoming 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Yet, this year’s event also came at another key moment in the nation’s post-Cold War history with Angela Merkel’s long chancellorship now in its twilight phase after around a decade and a half in office.
Merkel has long been the most important political leader in continental Europe having been head of the German Christian Democratic Union (CDU) from 2000 to 2018, and chancellor since 2005. Indeed, in the era of Donald Trump, she has had solid claims to being the most influential leader in the Western world too, with the potential exception of Emmanuel Macron.
A pivotal figure on the international stage
To put Merkel’s achievements into wider international perspective, three US presidents (George Bush, Barack Obama and Trump), four French presidents (Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, Francois Hollande and Macron), and five UK prime ministers (Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson) have already served during her long tenure. And Merkel has also already exceeded the previous record of Margaret Thatcher as Europe’s longest serving female leader which was 11 years.
Yet, the irony is that at the same time that Merkel is such a pivotal figure on the international stage, with Germany the anchor country in the EU, she is facing mounting challenges on multiple fronts. This includes defending the integrity of the EU, and also preserving the wider western post-war order that she and so many compatriots in Germany so value.
The ongoing battle that Merkel is fighting with Trump matters not just to Germany therefore, but also Europe and the world at large.
On the EU front, Merkel has played a major role in the last decade in seeking to stabilise the Brussels-based club from the Greek debt crisis through to the immigration challenges which saw her country taking in around 1 million refugees and migrants in 2015 alone. With the EU remaining fragile, there is also ongoing Brexit negotiations which will come to a head again soon with the prospect that the United Kingdom could leave with ‘no-deal’.
Beyond Brexit, the gathering storm clouds highlight the fragility of the political situation across the continent as shown not just by the weakening of Merkel’s own government; but also the growing populist surge in eastern Europe. This reflects the rise of anti-EU, nationalist sentiment across the continent. And while Brexit exemplifies this, the problem is by no means limited to the United Kingdom as countries from Italy to Poland show.
And if these issues were not big enough for Merkel, another challenge is the new geopolitical reality that has witnessed an increasingly assertive Russia, and instability in the Middle East and Africa which has driven the migration problems impacting Europe. And intensifying this is uncertainty from Washington with Trump previously calling for more Brexits across the continent.
Sparring with Trump
Merkel’s own style and values have frequently collided with those of Trump, who relishes his role as disrupter of the established western order that she embodies. While the White House has asserted that Germany is “a bedrock of the transatlantic relationship and the Nato alliance”, bilateral relations are unquestionably cooler in recent years.
So the personal animosity between Trump and Merkel has seen bilateral relations much chillier with several issues becoming thornier in the bilateral relationship, including trade and defence spending. On trade, Trump has called Germany “very bad” because of its significant trade surplus — with exports larger than imports — and the president has particularly singled out the nation’s car exports which he has threatened to put tariffs on.
A second sore centres around Germany’s failure to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence spending, a key Nato goal. Indeed, the country spent ‘only’ 1.13 per cent of GDP in 2017.
Yet, the tensions between Germany and the United States are a microcosm of broader tensions within the Western alliance which Merkel cares so deeply about. Since she became head of the CDU, there have been a series of intra-Western disagreements over issues from the Middle East, including the Iraq War opposed in 2003 by Germany; through to the rise of China with some European powers and the United States having disagreements over the best way to engage the rising super power.
Backing for Middle East peace process
Yet, despite occasional discord, Germany and key Western nations generally continued to agree until the Trump presidency around a broad range of issues such as international trade; backing for a Middle Eastern peace process between Israel and the Palestinians along Oslo principles; plus strong support for the international rules-based system and the supranational organisations that make this work. Yet today, more of these key principles are being disrupted if not outright undermined by Trump’s agenda.
The ongoing battle that Merkel is fighting with Trump matters not just to Germany therefore, but also Europe and the world at large, given that she — alongside Macron — has emerged as perhaps the most authoritative defender of the liberal international order in her period in office. Indeed, she and French president, alongside Trump, currently embody more than any other democratic leaders the present ‘fight’ in international relations between the liberal centre ground, and an apparently rising populist tide, and which will continue to play out into the 2020s.
— Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics