Soft-power potential of Merkel-Macron
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Germany wants good relations with both Russia and the English-speaking world, but it can’t really trust either, according to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Such admissions don’t advance her re-election campaign, as some claim, but her aim is much broader than that anyhow.
Merkel’s remarks that “the time when we could fully rely on others is pretty much gone”, and that “Europeans must take their destiny into their own hands”, came after President Donald Trump’s disastrous European trip. While on the continent, Trump failed to affirm the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (Nato’s) mutual defence pledge or US participation in the Paris climate change agreement. He also called Germany “very bad” for selling “millions” of cars in the US (which is, incidentally, false). But the domestic context in which these remarks were made is also important.
Merkel made her speech in a beer tent on a sweltering hot day in Munich, during a political event held by the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. The support of CSU leader and Bavarian prime minister Horst Seehofer, whose views are significantly to the right of Merkel, has been key for her longevity as German leader. Seehofer has repeatedly praised Trump for being faithful to his election promises. Unlike Merkel, he’s also a believer in lifting sanctions on Russia.
Merkel’s statement—called historic by some of the German media—is more in line with the fiercely anti-Trump stand taken by some of the leftist parties. The leaders of far-left Die Linke and the Greens have called Trump a narcissist and a nationalist who cannot be a partner to Germany. Martin Schulz, leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Merkel’s main rival for the chancellorship, angrily defended the chancellor against what he claimed was “humiliating” treatment at Trump’s hands. Foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel, an SPD member, also has strong words for anyone who doesn’t oppose Trump.
But Merkel has little to gain politically by siding with the left on Trump. She cannot be more vehement than they are because of the office she holds. Besides, she has a chance to avoid building another grand coalition with the SPD if she—as seems likely—wins the parliamentary election in September; that would require enlisting the help of the resurgent, pro-business Free Democratic Party, whose leader, Christian Lindner, has cautioned against jeopardizing Germany’s alliance with the US because of Trump’s antics.
Even though the average German is no more inclined to trust Trump than Vladimir Putin, Merkel doesn’t play to that sentiment. The nature of her appeal is different. While she has always won political points by staying above fights and demonstrating a pragmatic ability to compromise, here she uncharacteristically decided to vent her frustration. Perhaps it was an emotional decision—like the promise to close nuclear power plants after the Fukushima disaster or the open-door refugee policy of 2015. But, more likely, it’s an opening move in a game Merkel is about to start with a new, promising partner.
Merkel has just watched French President Emmanuel Macron’s sharp act during the Trump visit: the handshake duel, the swerve to greet her before Trump at Nato headquarters (which Macron actually posted on Twitter), the young Frenchman’s feisty negotiating style. Macron showed his fighting spirit again during a Monday meeting with Putin in Versailles, raising every uncomfortable subject he could think of and barring the Kremlin’s propaganda media from the final press conference (Putin swallowed it). This is far from the milquetoast politics of François Hollande, a master of concession. This new man is not afraid to go on the offensive.
For the first time in years, Merkel has someone with a negotiating style that complements hers. She can play good cop to his bad cop when necessary; he can drive an uncomfortable debate and she can calm troubled waters. The duo will test how this works on the toughest adversary—Putin—when they meet, as the French and Russian leaders agreed to discuss Ukraine.
Merkel’s statement, unnecessary in the context of her domestic campaign, may have been a wink to Macron, an invitation to try moving mountains together. Germany and France now have an unusual opportunity. Macron’s directness and reformist zeal coupled with Merkel’s experience is a combination with a lot of soft-power potential, a device to sell Europe as the major global force for good—a role the US has long tried to reserve for itself. Merkel can’t go it alone: German power is distrusted even on Europe’s periphery, not to mention the rest of the world. Europe, in which France plays an equally visible role, is a much less uncomfortable narrative.
If the duo works, the European Union, the euro area or just the Franco-German alliance representing Europe may replace the US as the “shining city on a hill” by the time Trump leaves office. One might even say that the US and its satellite, the UK, are in danger of being relegated to the role of that city’s armed guard: Even with Trump in the White House, the US is stepping up its military commitments to Europe despite limited reciprocity.
Such a coup would make Merkel’s fourth term as chancellor much more exciting than it could have been without Macron. Her eyes are atwinkle again, and it’s definitely not the beer. Bloomberg
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist.