Angela Merkel has never been a showboating politician. Public speaking isn’t her forte – she prefers to work behind the scenes. That’s why her latest speech has made such big waves, on both sides of the Atlantic. The Washington Post said it marked the beginning of a ‘new chapter in US-European relations.’ The New York Times called it a ‘potentially seismic shift.’ Seasoned US diplomat Richard Haas described it as ‘a watershed’ in America’s relationship with Europe. So what did Merkel say? What did she mean by it? And what are the implications for Germany, and for Britain?
Uttered by any other politician, Merkel’s speech last Sunday might not be such big news, but this is a woman who likes to keep her head down, and rarely says anything sensational – or even memorable, for that matter. Hence, on the rare occasions when she actually says something notable, the impact is considerable – and this time, it’s immense.
‘The times when we could fully depend on others are – to a certain extent – over, as I’ve experienced in the past few days,’ she told an election rally in Bavaria. ‘And that is why I can only say, we Europeans must take our destiny into our own hands. Of course in friendship with the United States, and in friendship with Great Britain, with neighbourly relations, wherever possible, with Russia, and other countries – but we have to understand that we must fight for our future, ourselves, as Europeans.’ This isn’t just about the Single Market. This is about foreign policy and defence.
After Trump’s boorish behaviour at last week’s G7 summit, this declaration may seem like a statement of the bleeding obvious. While Trump remains in the White House, no-one can depend upon America. That much is clear. Yet the fact that Merkel felt the need to say so, so publicly, so unequivocally, is sobering. And the fact that she seemed to put Britain in the same bracket is a shock for Britons of every stripe. Over the last eleven months, one of the few things Remainers and Leavers have been able to agree on is that leaving the EU needn’t mean leaving Europe. Now it seems the most powerful woman in Europe no longer sees it the same way.
There are some important caveats. Merkel is campaigning for re-election, and this was a rally for the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. The CSU have always backed the CDU, but this conservative alliance was sorely tested when Merkel welcomed a million refugees into Germany. Last summer there was even talk of the CSU fielding a separate candidate for the Chancellorship – an unprecedented step. That threat has now receded but Merkel still has to mend bridges with the CSU, and a distaste for Donald Trump is something virtually all Germans can agree on. Dissing The Donald (and bigging up the EU) is also a clever way of outflanking her main rival for the Chancellorship – former President of the European Parliament, SPD leader Martin Schulz.
Yet there’s clearly more to this speech than simple electioneering. ‘Since 1945, the supreme strategic goal in Europe of the USSR and then Russia was the severing of the US-German alliance,’ tweeted David Frum, of the Atlantic. ‘Trump delivered.’ It seems Merkel has given notice that, in her opinion, the current US administration is quite unlike any of its recent predecessors. What does she know that we don’t? For now, we can only guess.
Merkel has always loved America. During her youth, behind the Iron Curtain, she always yearned to go there. Her first visit was a dream come true. ‘What was I so enthusiastic about?’ she said, recalling the happy holidays she spent there. ‘The American Dream, the opportunity for everyone to succeed, to get somewhere by their own efforts.’ For her, it really was the Land of the Free. She’s always regarded a rock solid relationship with the US as a cornerstone of German foreign policy. She forged close friendships with Barack Obama AND George W Bush. For her, the failure of this relationship is a personal bereavement, which is why this speech carries such clout.
Last week’s G7 was the first time Merkel actually got down to business with Donald Trump, and while the press focused on his oafish manners, for Merkel the more substantive aspects of his visit will have been far more alarming, most notably his apparent ambivalence towards Nato (he neglected to give a public endorsement of Nato’s Article Five – the central principle of all for one and one for all). Only slightly less disconcerting was his continued penchant for protectionism, calling German trade practices ‘very bad’ (specifically, it seems, the ‘very bad’ trade practice of building German cars in America, to meet the American demand for German cars). Angela Merkel is right. For now, Germany can no longer rely on the US. The big question for Britain, in these changing times, is who can we now rely on? Merkel’s federalist EU, or the protectionist and isolationist America of Donald Trump?