US president Donald Trump heaped further scorn upon Germany before last week’s NATO summit. With parliamentary elections coming up in France and Germany, he will become the perfect foil – and Chancellor Angela Merkel has already launched the first shot.
In front of a crowded beer tent in Munich on Sunday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel shed her usually judicious tone and made a statement unheard in transatlantic circles for decades: Europe could no longer “completely count” on its allies the United States and Britain and must forge its own path. Her comments sparked a flurry of speculation across Europe: was this campaign talk or a paradigm shift? Mostly, the chancellor’s statement was a reflection of how badly – very badly – last week’s NATO and G7 summits in Europe concluded.
Even before the summits, Merkel knew Trump would not have kind words for the Germans. Having visited the White House in March, Merkel likely knew that Trump’s obsession with the German trade surplus and lack of military spending would bring more hostility to their second meeting. It did.
“The Germans are bad, very bad,” Trump told European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker during a visit to the EU institutions, according to the German weekly Der Spiegel. “See the millions of cars they are selling in the US? Terrible. We will stop this.” (Quite some of those “German cars” are produced by American workers in the US, but no matter).
The optics could have been terrible for Merkel. While Trump insulted her nation, she would have to smile and shake his hand at the NATO summit. The German front pages might have featured a humiliated Merkel standing next to a gloating, strutting US president. But they didn’t.
Instead, the papers featured photos of Merkel with Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama. While Trump was disparaging the Germans in Brussels on Thursday morning, Obama was speaking with Merkel at a religious celebration at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. It was the headline event at Kirchentag, a yearly celebration of Lutheranism which has been called the “Protestant Woodstock.” It took on particular significance this year, as Germany is marking the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 theses that launched the Protestant Reformation in 1517.
That Merkel invited Obama to appear in Berlin on this day was no accident. Merkel is running for re-election in September and she has been concerned that her rival, Social Democrat Martin Schulz, has been increasingly projecting himself not only as the “Obama of Germany,” but also as the anti-Trump. It worked wonders after the SPD announced his candidacy in January, and he received a huge boost due to the “Schulz-mania” that appeared to be sweeping the country. That boost has since waned, and Schulz will be looking for new ways to project himself as the chancellor who will be tougher on Trump.
As sitting chancellor of a country that is militarily dependent on the US, Merkel is limited in what she can say about the US president. Schulz is under no such restrictions as a candidate. Over the next four months, this dynamic is going to become increasingly problematic for Merkel. In Europe in 2017, being anti-Trump is a vote winner. But how can the chancellor of Germany project herself as the opponent of the US president?
Her beer tent rally speech was proof that she could. And last week’s joint appearance with Obama was a tacit endorsement, not to mention that it drowned out any problematic photos of Merkel and Trump together in Brussels later in the day.
Macron’s Death Grip
The anti-Trump factor was clear in last month’s French election, too. Far-right leader Marine Le Pen made the mistake of associating herself with Trump too freely and too early. As chaos and ineptitude engulfed the Trump White House, French voters began to think of the consequences of their vote in a different light. Le Pen, who was always forecast to make it into the second round of voting, ended up performing much worse than expected on election day.
Winner Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, gladly cast himself as the anti-Trump during the French elections, attacking the US president in extraordinary ways. He has continued doing so since becoming French president, something that was on display in some extraordinary body language in Brussels. Trump is now infamous for trying to symbolically overpower his opponents with a firm handshake. So Macron went in for the kill for the first handshake between the two men. Reporters at the scene described a handshake so fierce that they could see “knuckles whitening and faces tightening,” before Trump was forced to yield to Macron.
Then later in the day when the two met again at NATO, Macron pointedly walked toward Trump before suddenly diverting to Merkel to greet her before the US president. He shook hands and exchanged pleasantries with fellow European leaders, leaving Trump waiting and visibly annoyed. Finally, Macron turned to Trump, his smile fading. Trump tried to regain control of the situation by seemingly trying to pull Macron’s arm out of its socket. Macron two, Trump zero.
Macron has his own election coming up in two weeks’ time – the French legislative elections which could make or break his presidency. He needs to pull off an incredible feat, having his brand-new En Marche! party win a majority of seats in the legislature so that he can pursue his agenda. If he does not secure a governing majority in parliament by winning a majority of seats or building a coalition, his presidency would be hobbled before it even begins.
Macron knows the images of him standing up to Trump will be well received back home, after the French felt humiliated by previous president Francois Hollande’s feeble presence on the international stage.
Merkel’s G20 Balancing Act
Merkel will perhaps have been watching these scenes with envy; her hands are tied, to some extent. Trump seems to be itching for a trade war with Germany and Merkel does not want to provoke him. At the same time, for the purposes of the Bundestag elections the chancellor needs more symbolic gestures of “Trump resistance.” In truth, the “handshake snub” earlier this year was a political gift to her at home. She needs more optics like this one – though she will probably want to avoid being seen with Trump at all over the next four months.
If only she could. Trump will come to Europe again in July to attend the G20 summit in Hamburg, hosted by Germany (also likely the occasion when Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet the new US president for the first time). The visit could end up a political nightmare for Merkel. She must play the polite host, but at the same time she cannot allow voters to see her as weak against Trump. Schulz will move quickly to take advantage if she does.
Speaking on Friday at the Kirchentag to a full Berlin cathedral, Schulz was sure to make maximum political hay of Trumps comments about Germans. Appearing to defend Merkel, he said it was not right for a US president to behave like an autocratic ruler and treat the chancellor in “such a humiliating manner.” Of course, this was not a gesture of solidarity with Merkel but rather a move to paint her as having been humiliated. It was a gesture of pity, describing a chancellor who was weak.
Merkel cannot afford to fall into this trap and lose face – or handshake – in Hamburg.