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Donald Trump’s Election Leaves Angela Merkel as the Liberal West’s Last Defender

Posted by hkarner - 14. November 2016

Date: 13-11-2016
Source: The Wall Street Journal

Merkel cc2Angela Merkel. The German chancellor has been in power for 11 years.
BERLIN — And then there was one.

Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, has emerged as the last powerful defender of Europe and the trans-Atlantic alliance after the election of Donald J. Trump. But after 11 years in power, she is tired, her associates say, and under siege seemingly from all directions.

She is under pressure from the same forces that elevated Mr. Trump in America, fueled Britain’s vote to exit the European Union and are now propelling the populist Marine Le Pen in France. At home, the hard-right Alternative for Germany party has scored a string of victories in state elections.

Ms. Merkel needs to fend off a resurgent Russia that is promoting its brand of illiberal democracy by backing right-wing parties throughout the Continent and fanning the flames of populism. But with Mr. Trump openly admiring Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, even maintaining economic sanctions imposed on Moscow over conflicts in Crimea and Ukraine will be a challenge.

“Never before has so much ridden on the Germans,” said Simon Tilford, the deputy director of the Center for European Reform in London. “We’re very fortunate that Germany is led now by Merkel, because there is a chance she will step up and do what Europe needs her to do.”

An increasingly divided Europe is looking to Germany, its richest power, to cope with its many problems, some of them longstanding: low growth, a continuing stream of refugees, and increasingly angry and nationalistic electorates.

Italy and Spain are politically fragile, Austria might elect a hard-right president next month, and Ms. Merkel faces difficult negotiations with Britain over its so-called Brexit.

And with Mr. Trump advocating “America First” and questioning the value of the NATO alliance, there is pressure on Germany to take a greater role in European security — always a delicate matter.

For the last eight years, Ms. Merkel could count on the steadfast backing of President Obama and France’s Élysée Palace. But with the ascent of Mr. Trump and the deep unpopularity of President Francois Hollande, she has lost that vital backing.

Those who follow Ms. Merkel closely say that she is weary of grappling with Europe’s troubles, and that her close circle, always small, is more defensive and withdrawn after last year’s migrant crisis, which has weakened her politically. Still, she is under pressure to run for a fourth four-year term, a decision expected by early December.

“She’s the last one standing, and that makes her both strong and weak at the same time,” said Stefan Kornelius, one of her biographers and a political analyst for the daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. “She’s a pillar of stability, the last wall, and people want to lean against it.”

At the same time, he said, “she’s the lightning rod for all those European populists who blame Germany for being powerful and hegemonic and setting the rules” — including Alternative for Germany, the country’s own rising populist party.

But experience and patience count. Much like her initial response to the Brexit vote — urging calm and expressing the intent to work for a close relationship with Britain no matter what — Ms. Merkel’s reaction to the election of Mr. Trump was deft.

On a fateful date when Germans are usually preoccupied with remembering Kristallnacht — the Nazis’ pogroms against Jews on Nov. 9, 1938 — and the joyous fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989, Ms. Merkel offered Mr. Trump her close cooperation but named a price: respect for human dignity and for minorities from a man who has mocked both.

Ms. Merkel had a brisk, assertive tone that was a measure of how far Germany has come since American generosity and protection enabled it to rise from Nazi defeat, first to prosper and eventually to overcome Cold War division.

“Germany and America are bound by common values: democracy, freedom, as well as respect for the rule of law and the dignity of each and every person regardless of their origin, skin color, creed, gender, sexual orientation or political views,” she said. Cooperation with the United States, she said, must be “based on these values.”

“It was stunning how she publicly laid out the rules for Trump, congratulating him but laying down conditions,” Mr. Kornelius said.

Ms. Merkel’s statement would have been much more powerful if it had been delivered not just in Germany’s name, said Rosa Balfour of the German Marshall Fund in Brussels.

“It would have been nice had she proposed it to other European leaders and said, ‘Let’s do this together,’” Ms. Balfour said. “That didn’t happen.”

For Ms. Merkel, the Trump victory was also a personal blow, because she has had a mutually admiring friendship with Hillary Clinton and because it will damage the legacy of Mr. Obama.

This coming week, Mr. Obama will visit Germany after a stop in Greece on what is likely to be his last visit to Europe as president. It will be a bittersweet moment for two leaders who have come to rely on each other, even after Mr. Obama’s strong criticism of Germany’s unyielding stance on the euro, austerity and the Greek debt crisis.

But Germany’s strength also has fissures. Some 27 years after the Berlin Wall fell, Europe’s No. 1 economy shirks any real fundamental changes. It remains dependent on American military and intelligence for its security, although it is ramping up intelligence spending. Its exporters benefit hugely from the euro single currency, but the government keeps postponing the politically costly task of strengthening the eurozone.

In the past two years, Ms. Merkel has been firm in dealing with Russia, keeping Europe united on sanctions of the Kremlin for its seizure of Crimea and fighting in east Ukraine. But Ms. Merkel’s admission of hundreds of thousands of mostly Muslim refugees last year weakened her at home and soured relations with Central and Eastern European countries that felt ignored.

Mr. Trump’s election may remove some of those difficulties. His pay-as-you-go approach to NATO, for instance, could prompt the Central and Eastern Europeans to turn toward the European Union, and Germany, as a more reliable source of protection.

Eugeniusz Smolar of the Center for International Relations in Warsaw said that “Europeans need a shock,” and that Mr. Trump’s election “is one which might be very helpful to concentrate their beautiful minds.” After decades of lip service, Mr. Smolar said, Europeans may for instance finally pool arms production or indeed strengthen and expand the eurozone.

But the vivid weakness of France and Mr. Hollande, and the rise of right-wing populism from Poland and Hungary to France and Germany itself, have put another burden on Ms. Merkel, Mr. Tilford said. “If Trump can win in the United States, then Le Pen can win in France,” he said.

If Ms. Merkel “wants to prevent the worsening of the political situation in France,” he said, that would mean loosening up on the eurozone — a banking union, pan-eurozone public investment, an end to austerity. “And that would mean Merkel facing down” the right in her own party, Alternative for Germany and her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble.

“To help France and prevent Le Pen is to risk increased populism in Germany,” Mr. Tilford said.

It is equally possible that Europe’s response to Mr. Trump’s election might accentuate the Continent’s divisions. Mark Leonard, the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank based in London, said it could “create a kind of race to Washington, where everybody tries to do their own deals” with the deal-making Mr. Trump.

The British will be at the head of the queue, he said — something apparently confirmed by the president-elect’s immediate invitation to Prime Minister Theresa May to visit Washington.

Ms. Merkel’s style of leadership — undramatic, which is how many voters here like it — may not cut much ice with Mr. Trump, the building magnate and reality TV star, who loves the glamour that Ms. Merkel shuns. During the campaign, he fiercely attacked her admission of migrants.

Yet Ms. Merkel has shown flair in dealing with powerful men, reaching a much-criticized and fragile pact with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to stop Middle Eastern refugees from reaching Europe, and negotiating with Mr. Putin.

And she may be able to use Mr. Trump’s victory to her own electoral advantage.

“I was really impressed by her statement, especially her appeal below the surface” to Mr. Trump to behave properly, said Daniel Mock, 23, an engineering student at Technical University of Berlin. “It could stand her in a better light.”

By contrast, Vincent Szlang, 21, and Vincent Frebel, 23, both economics students, went against the generally critical German view of Mr. Trump. “The election was a repudiation of two different lifestyles: first the old liberalism and second the attempt to preserve order through pragmatism,” Mr. Szlang said.

Mr. Frebel saw the chance of better relations with Russia and said Mrs. Clinton would have been harsher on Germany than Mr. Trump.

Such remarks underpin concerns among older generations that the lessons of Nazism and Communism are not necessarily learned, and that Germans old and young share Mr. Trump’s admiration for the leader of near-neighbor Russia.

Berlin’s B.Z. tabloid reflected the shift since the fall of the wall. Back then, in an iconic headline, it proclaimed: “Berlin is again Berlin!”

Twenty-seven years later, it pronounced the election of Mr. Trump “the night the West died.”

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