Merkel’s Europe First Speech: It’s Overdue (But Means Little)

05/29/2017 04:29 pm ET

Angela Merkel made a splash with her speech last week saying that Europe could no longer rely on the United States. She didn’t exactly specify where trust had broken down, but anyway it was an unusually forthright slap at Washington.

Despite the all angst about the meaning of such a breech between 70-year allies, there’s less here than meets the eye.

It started with Trump, in his usual bumptious manner, demanding that NATO countries come up with the 2 per cent of gross domestic product they promised to spend on defense. Although this has become a signature complaint of Trump’s, it was in fact a common NATO pledge made in 2014, when Barack Obama was president. Germany freely signed on.

Only the US, United Kingdom, Estonia, Poland and Greece (huh?) have reached the 2 per cent minimum. So Trump’s grievance was nothing new, just rudely put, as usual.

Merkel seemed much more unhappy about Trump’s refusal to endorse the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate. But she went beyond worrying about the weather: “We Europeans,” she intoned, “Must really take our fate into our own hands.”

Along the way, she rather brusquely removed the United Kingdom from Europe when she spoke in terms of “We Europeans” and grudginglyendorsed future friendly relations with the alien country across the English Channel. Presumably, she crossed the UK off the map because the UK is leaving the European Union. Someone should remind Merkel that, despite her perhaps hidden desires, the EU is not synonymous with Europe. Ask Switzerland and Norway.

Merkel is right, though, that Europe should end its long period of post-World War II infantilism in the shadow of the US, take a greater role in its own defense and put its interests first, if the EU canfigure o ut what they are. Despite the Trump phenomenon, few issues strategically separate the EU and Washington. It’s Trumop’s nationalist-populism that is upsetting EU leaders more accustomed to soft rhetoric and consensus.

So what are the chances of Merkel’s Europe First policy taking concrete form soon? Zero.

First, the EU is in a political and economic mess. Merkel’s hardline on debt repayments and demands for austerity from struggling southern European countries have stymied continental economic growth.

Merkel has proposed a two-tier EU dividing wealthy northerners form less well-off southerners. Who will want to be second rate Europeans under that plan? Not a few Europeans think that Merkel’s stewardship of Europe’s economic crisis smacked of Germany First.

Moreover, Italy and Greece have been left to handle uncontrolled immigration from Africa and the Middle East, thanks in part to Merkel’s unwise 2015 decision to open Germany’s borders to migrants. Under electoral pressure, she has now closed the frontier, is paying migrants to go home, and arranged a 3 billion Euro bribe to Turkey to stop the flow into Greece. But the traffic just shifted west to Libya, from which Italy now faces a record influx. The EU has done nothing to help.

Meanwhile, Merkel’s unhappiness with Trump’s stand on climate change obscures the fact that Europe produces more hot air on the issue than action. Of the EU countries committed to the Paris accord, only three are keeping up with their promises to cut carbon emissions: Germany, France and Sweden. The rest use loopholes that keep the carbon spewing.

In The Guardian newspaper, Femke de Jong, the EU’s policy director for Carbon Market Watch, complained that “EU politicians portraying themselves as climate leaders should put their money where their mouth is by closing loopholes in the EU’s key climate law and pushing for more ambition.” If Trump pulls out of the accord, the impetus to truly curb carbon production in Europe will probably collapse among already reluctant countries.

Do Trump and Merkel really differ on defense? Germany and France have long tossed about creation of a non-NATO military force. The two countries operate a 5000-troop unit called the German-Franco Brigade, part of something called Eurocorps, supposedly for use by NATO or the EU. But deployments have been small and limited. It will take money to make the units viable. Isn’t that what Trump wants? Europe to spend more on defense?

Anyway, it was only last January that Merkel’s Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen met with Trump’s Defense Secretary James Mattis, all huggy-kissy about Mattis’ pledge of the US commitment to NATO and praise for Germany’s dispatch of troops to the Baltics to counter Russia.

The public Merkel-Trump feud actually masks other concerns, some politically motivated. First, the chancellor is trying to rally the continent to greater political unity in the face of widespread dissatisfaction. There’s no better way than to appeal to a kind of supra-national nationalism to get faint EU hearts beating, despite Merkel’s distaste for such talk.

Secondly, in their own manner, both Trump and Merkel were playing domestic politics. Trump expressed his concern that American taxpayers were unfairly overpaying for European security. That’s a winning pitch to his Make-America-Great-On-The-Cheap constituency.

Merkel, meanwhile, faces parliamentary elections in September; she made her Europe First speech at a campaign rally. Standing up to the boorish Trump pleases all possible German constituencies: left-wingers who don’t like him or NATO; centrists who are pro-EU, global free traders and find Trump’s hostility to both upsetting; and right-wing chest-thumping nationalists.

Plus, everyone in Germany seems to like the Paris agreement, so there’s that.

Probably, when Merkel wins her fourth term in office (as she will) and Trump grows up (hmmm, okay, maybe not), relations between the US and Germany will get back to congenial normality.

One possible sign that they won’t: if Germany campaigns for removal of US nuclear weapons from Europe. Then things will really get touchy.

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