Is Ivanka Trump’s visit to Berlin a triumph for Angela Merkel, or a diplomatic disaster? As always, that depends on which newspapers you read. Germany’s Suddeutsche Zeitung called it a ‘a veritable coup for the chancellor,’ but the headlines in the British press have focused on the boos that greeted Ivanka at yesterday’s W20 Summit, when the President’s daughter described her father as a defender of women’s rights.
Sat alongside Ivanka on the conference platform, Merkel looked distinctly awkward – but Ms Trump’s appearance wasn’t entirely met with groans and jeers. Her other comments were greeted with polite applause and, on one occasion, even cheers (she praised Merkel for enforcing equal pay for German women, implying America should follow suit). For Ivanka it was a baptism of fire, but in the end she came out ahead. And for Merkel, after a tricky start, her decision to invite Ivanka here was vindicated. In fact, this conference was valuable PR for both women: Ivanka gave Merkel a much needed touch of glamour; Merkel gave Ivanka a welcome dash of gravitas. Could this be the beginning of an unlikely friendship between the frumpy German Chancellor and the daughter of the US President? After all, as Mrs May observed when she met Ivanka’s father, opposites can attract.
The story behind Ivanka’s surprise appearance says a lot about Merkel’s shrewd approach to politics. She’s never spectacular or showy – all her best work is done behind the scenes. Her visit to Washington last month was widely regarded as a failure, on account of the stilted atmosphere in her public appearances with Donald Trump. Yet bizarrely, Trump has since claimed he had ‘unbelievable chemistry’ with Merkel, and Merkel has spoken unusually positively about the prospects for a US-EU trade deal. It seems there may have been more to Merkel’s US visit than met the eye. During that visit, Merkel requested – and duly got – a meeting with Ivanka, to discuss Ivanka’s interest in vocational training (in Germany, apprentices combine academic study with hands-on experience in industry). Merkel subsequently invited Ivanka to Berlin, not only to attend the W20 summit, but also to visit one of these apprentice schemes, at Siemens’ Technical Academy.
All very flattering for Ivanka, of course – but what was in it for Merkel? Well, by taking Ivanka seriously, and treating her like a grown-up, the German Chancellor not only built bridges with the Trump Administration – she also outflanked her domestic opponents in the SPD. ‘Am I the only one who thinks it is utterly absurd that the Chancellor is now conducting foreign policy with the daughter of Donald Trump?’ sneered the SPD’s Lars Klingbeil. Probably not, but it could be Merkel’s masterstroke. German politicians can get away with calling Donald Trump empty-headed, but making the same accusations about his daughter merely sound sour and misogynistic. ‘The Chancellor correctly noted that, for Trump, blood is thicker than water,’ wrote Hubert Wetzel in the Suddeutsche Zeitung. ‘A good connection with the President’s daughter is worth significantly more than receiving a dozen of his ministers.’
And what does The Donald make of it? No doubt his Twitter feed will tell us, in due course. ‘Proud of Ivanka Trump for her leadership on these important issues,’ he tweeted yesterday, sharing an article Ivanka wrote for the Financial Times about female economic empowerment. ‘Looking forward to hearing her speak at the W20!’ He won’t have enjoyed the footage of her being booed there, but seeing her share a platform with IMF chief Christine Lagarde, Bank of America Vice President Anne Finucane and Queen Maxima of the Netherlands would boost any father’s ego. Merkel will be hoping these flattering images of Ivanka alongside the world’s leading women will linger in the Presidential memory, long after the catcalls have died away.