BERLIN — The German government is fighting itself — and it’s Donald Trump’s fault.
Angela Merkel slapped down her foreign minister for calling on Europe to be more forceful in emancipating itself from the U.S., dismissing his initiative as an “expression of opinion” that was not discussed with her beforehand.
Merkel stressed that Europe’s security cooperation with the U.S. remains “extremely useful.” “For me that carries a lot of weight,” she added.
The German dispute illustrates both the degree to which Trump has thrown transatlantic relations off kilter and the difficulty Europe’s leaders are having in articulating a coherent approach to Washington.
Merkel’s intervention follows the publication of an opinion piece in Wednesday’s edition of the daily Handelsblatt, in which Foreign Minister Heiko Maas suggested Europe’s estrangement from the U.S. runs much deeper than frustration with Trump. After 70 years of depending on the U.S., Europe should pursue “a new world order,” Maas said.
“Where the USA crosses the line, we Europeans must form a counterweight — as difficult as that can be” — Heiko Maas
“The overlapping of values and interests that shaped our relationship for two generations is decreasing,” Maas wrote. “The binding force of the East-West conflict is history. These changes began well before Trump’s election — and will survive his presidency well into the future.”
The answer, in Maas’ view, is for Europe to assert itself more across a range of areas, from finance to security, to create “a balanced partnership” with the U.S.
He suggested Europe set up a system for financial transactions “independent of the U.S,” a reference to American influence over SWIFT, the Belgium-based international interbank payment network. The Trump administration has used SWIFT as a sanctions tool by ordering the organization to cut off Iranian banks, much to the frustration of the EU.
Maas didn’t explain how Europe could create such a network without the involvement of the world’s largest economy, but Merkel dismissed the idea out of hand, noting the current system is of “decisive importance” in the fight against terrorism.
While it’s not uncommon for Merkel to publicly, if subtly, upbraid her ministers, the episodes don’t usually involve a subject as sensitive as Germany’s relationship with the U.S., which explains the chancellor’s swift response.
There has long been tension between Merkel’s chancellery and the foreign ministry, controlled by her coalition partners the Social Democrats, over foreign policy. Over her 13-year tenure, Merkel has seized control of the most important aspects of Germany’s foreign policy, including most European issues and the transatlantic relationship, rendering the foreign ministry largely powerless.
Maas, a former justice minister who took office earlier this year, is only the latest in a string of foreign ministers to feel Merkel’s ire.
In his piece, Maas took pains to highlight the deep connections that have developed between America and Europe, even waxing about a journey he took across the U.S. as a young man “with Paul Auster’s ‘New York Trilogy’ in my pocket and Bruce Springsteen’s music in my ears.”
Nonetheless, what jolted readers on both sides of the Atlantic was Maas’ suggestion that Europe prepare to treat the U.S. not as an ally but as a potential adversary.
“Where the USA crosses the line, we Europeans must form a counterweight — as difficult as that can be,” Maas wrote.
“It is of strategic importance that we make it clear to Washington that we want to work together. But also: That we will not allow you to go over our heads, and at our expense.”
Maas is far from the first prominent German official to suggest Europe seek more autonomy from the U.S. Last year, Merkel herself called on Europeans to “take our destiny into our own hands,” because the “times when we could completely rely on others have passed a bit.”
But Merkel’s comments, which she made in a Bavarian beer tent during last year’s election campaign, were too vague to be considered a call to action. What’s more, she hasn’t followed through. Germany has done nothing to distance itself from the U.S. If anything, Merkel has tried to improve relations.
That likely explains her annoyance at Maas’ more aggressive tone.
Yet Maas, a rising star in the SPD, and a politician some see as a potential chancellor candidate, knows he’s telling Germans what they want to hear.
More than half of Germans think relations with the U.S. are “bad,” according to a recent Pew study. A similar percentage is convinced that Europe can take care of its security without the U.S., according to a separate poll published last month.
Though the findings might not be surprising given Trump’s deep unpopularity in Germany, such attitudes suggest most Germans aren’t aware of just how dependent their country is on the U.S., both economically and militarily.
The U.S. is Germany’s largest export market, accounting for nearly 10 percent of all goods the country sells abroad. And with 33,000 troops stationed on German soil underscoring America’s NATO commitment to defend Germany (not to mention the nuclear deterrent), the U.S. contribution to German security would be very difficult to replace.
Even more important in the near-term is U.S. intelligence-sharing with Germany and other European allies, which has helped foil countless terror plots.
While Germans have recently voiced support for spending more on defense, replacing the capabilities they now enjoy essentially for free from the U.S. would cost more than most realize and in some cases cannot be replicated.
In his blueprint for more European autonomy, Maas warned of the “devil in thousands of details.” Acknowledging the hard reality of Europe’s reliance on the U.S. will be even harder.