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Germany struggles to fend off assaults from Trump (FT)

2 June 2018


“Berlin under threat from shifting transatlantic relations but lacks vision to respond”

“When the White House last week declared a national security investigation into automotive imports, paving the way for new tariffs on German cars, Berlin’s incredulous foreign minister responded with a joke. It did not go down too well. 

Heiko Maas told his US counterpart Mike Pompeo that the idea of Audis, Mercedes and BMWs endangering US national security was preposterous. “On the contrary,” Mr Maas quipped, “German cars make America’s streets safer.” 

Mr Pompeo was not amused. 

Mr Maas’s comment reflects the extent of German bewilderment at US president Donald Trump, who has called into question a transatlantic alliance that has been the cornerstone of Berlin’s postwar foreign policy. And no one in Berlin seems to know how to respond. 

The threat on cars was the latest in a string of jabs and punches borne by Germany. Mr Trump’s rejection of the Iran nuclear accord and his decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem were met with consternation in Berlin. The situation could be worse this week if the EU fails to secure an opt-out from Mr Trump’s threatened steel and aluminium tariffs by the US’s June 1 deadline. 

None of these measures has been solely directed at Germany, yet it has come in for more criticism from Mr Trump than any other EU state — over everything from its huge trade surplus with the US and liberal refugee policy to its failure to meet Nato defence spending targets. Germany is second only to China in what it stands to lose from US protectionist trade measures. 

Chancellor Angela Merkel has acknowledged the strategic challenge that Mr Trump poses, saying Europe can no longer fully rely on the US, must assume more responsibility for its own defence and “take its fate into its own hands”. 

But she has struggled to elaborate on her vision. Germany remains reliant on Washington’s security guarantees, has a limited choice of other international partners and is squeamish about developing the kind of hard power that has underpinned America’s place in the world. 

Thorsten Benner, head of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, said the chancellor was deliberately avoiding a debate that would spell out the ramifications of Mr Trump’s policies for Germany. 

“She needs to be leading the discussion, but she seems to shy away from it,” he said. “It is as if she does not want to expend any political capital on the issue.” 

Instead, in her interactions with the White House, she has adopted a tone that some critics see as appeasement. After Mr Trump threatened his steel tariff, Germany was more conciliatory than some other EU countries, advocating trade talks with the US to lower tariffs across a broad spectrum of products, especially in manufacturing. 

If that was designed to make Mr Trump more emollient, it failed. The tariffs that could result from the probe into car imports he announced last week would be particularly painful for Germany, potentially costing the country €5bn — or 0.16 per cent of gross domestic product, according to the Ifo Institute for Economic Research. 

Some have urged Ms Merkel to take the gloves off and lead a common European counter-attack. “Time for Europe to join the resistance,” was the headline of a recent editorial in the news magazine Der Spiegel. 

Indeed, a succession of German officials have been stressing the need for unity and solidarity in the EU’s response to Mr Trump. “In all these questions — tariffs, Iran, protectionism — the EU must speak with one voice,” said Jürgen Hardt, foreign policy spokesman for Ms Merkel’s CDU/CSU bloc. 

That was why it was important to strengthen the EU, Mr Hardt said, for example through increased defence and security co-operation. 

But the bloc has been weakened by political instability in Italy. And anyone hoping that the election last year of Emmanuel Macron as French president would revive the Franco-German engine of closer European integration, and so strengthen the EU vis a vis the US, will have been disappointed. Berlin’s response to Mr Macron’s ambitious proposals for reforming the EU and the eurozone has so far been tepid. 

Daniela Schwarzer, director of the German Council on Foreign Relations, said this has “opened up a void which has been filled by critics of Mr Macron” such as the Eurosceptic, populist Alternative for Germany. 

“Germany has missed the opportunity to redraft the EU’s positive leadership role,” she said. 

Beyond Europe, Germany’s options are limited. Some experts think it should work more closely with like-minded, mid-sized countries such as India, Japan, Canada, Mexico and Brazil, which also support free trade and the multilateral institutions under attack from Mr Trump. 

“If Germany could create . . . a critical mass in favour of the international liberal order, it can make a difference,” said Ulrich Speck, senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund. “We need to . . . increase our weight.” 

Others are sceptical. “The US is the anchor and guarantor of the postwar order and you cannot compensate for that by talking to the Canadians and Japanese,” said Ms Schwarzer. 

Nor do polls suggest German public support for the kind of big increase in military spending that would give Germany more of the “strategic autonomy” some in Berlin have been demanding. “The fact is that we will continue to depend on the US for our security,” said Mr Speck. “It would, for example, be unthinkable for Germany to have its own nuclear deterrent.” 

Some remain optimistic that Mr Trump will come to acknowledge the damage his America First policies have done and repair relationships with his closest allies, Germany included. 

“If Europe decouples then America will realise how politically isolated it is,” said Mr Hardt. “I doubt if that is in US interests. Trump wants to make America stronger, not weaker.” 

But Mr Speck said Germany might have few options other than continuing to appease the Americans and in effect paying a higher price for its relationship with the US than it has in the past. “Call it muddling through,” he said.”



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