Jana Puglierin is head of the Alfred von Oppenheim Center for European Policy Studies in Berlin
With just a few remarks, made during an election campaign event in a packed beer tent in Munich on Sunday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel prompted a fury of reactions from across the Atlantic and within Europe. Clearly referring to recent experiences dealing with U.S. President Donald Trump during a NATO meeting in Brussels and a G7 summit in Sicily, she said: "The times when we could fully count on others are over to a certain extent," adding, "We Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands."
Ever since, international commentators have tried to outdo each other with interpretations about the deeper meaning behind Ms. Merkel's words. The good thing about the German Chancellor is that she is not known to say things lightly. Frau Merkel usually means what Frau Merkel says. An Atlanticist by heart, she has surely not ended the transatlantic relationship in a beer tent.
Nor was her message exclusively addressed to her domestic audience, aiming at protecting her from being seen as Donald Trump's poodle. She was careful to use the qualifiers "fully" and "to a certain extent" and she reiterated many of her points on Monday – her remarks were surely no accident. They can only be understood against the backdrop of the developments that have shaken Germany's foreign and security policy in recent months.
The Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump – in Germany widely seen as two sides of the same coin – felt like political earthquakes for Berlin. In both cases, Germans had gone to bed in high spirits and woken up to a new reality. Both events were perceived as existential threats to the core parameters of German foreign policy – the EU and a strong transatlantic alliance.
What is worse, many in Berlin fear that both events are likely to reinforce each other in their negative impact on the EU. While Brexit is in itself already threatening the cohesion of the remaining 27 member states, many in Berlin still worry that the American president might actively seek to break up the EU. In an interview with The Times of London and the German tabloid Bild in January, 2017, Mr. Trump had praised Britain as "smart" for opting out of a European Union that he believed was a "vehicle for Germany" and on the brink of collapsing. Mr. Trump's indifference to a potential EU breakup was a direct attack on Germany's core political identity.
With that in mind, Ms. Merkel has made a clear strategic choice: Holding the EU-27 together has become her number-one priority. Germany needs a strong union – to feel comfortable in its own shoes and to exercise leadership. By saying that the Europeans had their destiny "in their own hands," she made the case for a stronger EU and a more active Germany in order to reach this aim. That was the key message of her beer-tent speech – not to throw transatlantic relations in the dustbin of history.
Ms. Merkel, who staunchly supported strong transatlantic ties even during the Iraq War in 2003, knows very well that the U.S. remains vital to German and European security. Militarily and economically, the U.S. remains Berlin's most important ally. And even if the EU were to move much faster and more vigorously with the creation of a European "defence union," something Germany has been pushing for some time, it would not reach strategic autonomy in the foreseeable future. Ms. Merkel has therefore tried to find a way for pragmatic co-operation with the Trump administration – and will continue to do so – despite significant and likely lasting disagreements. Transatlantic relations are simply too important.
However, no pragmatic co-operation in the world can camouflage the fact that Donald Trump, in the eyes of Berlin at least, has turned the United States into a source of global insecurity. Unlike Barack Obama, Mr. Trump doesn't see Frau Merkel as his "closest international partner," but as his ideological opposite. In his first 100 days in office, Trump has accused Germany of currency manipulation and other unfair trade practices. On Twitter, he has blasted Germany for owing the United States "vast" sums of money for its defence. Last December, he went as far as accusing Ms. Merkel of "ruining" Germany by taking in large number of refugees.
During their meeting in the White House on March 17, 2017, Donald Trump refused a handshake with Ms. Merkel in front of the press. To top it all, he has called the Germans "bad, very bad" during his most recent trip to Europe.
Under those circumstances, Ms. Merkel did nothing more than stating the obvious: Europe can no longer fully trust Donald Trump's America.