Merkel’s harsh words on Brexit played to her German audience – but the UK should still take note

June 5, 2017

Germans have elections, too. It was at a campaign event in Bavaria that the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, made a statement that has been interpreted as having grave implications for the cohesiveness of the Euro-Atlantic alliance. “The times in which we could totally rely on others are to some extent over, as I have experienced in the past two days,” she said, referring to both Donald Trump and Brexit. “We Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands.”

The event was hosted by the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. The CSU and CDU have had complicated relations over the past 18 months – after falling out over the handling of the refugee crisis – but their alliance has been forged again with an eye on the general election scheduled for September. Martin Schulz, Merkel’s Social Democratic rival, has sought to outflank the chancellor by vocally condemning Trump, and he opposes the 2 per cent GDP commitment on defence spending required of Nato members.

Though the context is illuminating, Merkel’s frustration is sincere. Her remarks followed the G7 in Sicily, at which Trump refused to confirm US agreement to the Paris climate-change deal, and more tensions over Nato in Brussels. The chancellor has dominated German politics by monopolising sober centrism. The implication of her remarks is that sober centrists have to face some new realities about their old friends.

Back in the United States, Trump’s first foreign tour had been scrutinised intensely, particularly among what remains of the besieged foreign policy establishment. There had been expressions of relief after the first phase of the tour, in the Middle East, passed without major embarrassment. The president stuck to the script given to him and seemed to enjoy the medieval ceremonialism in Saudi Arabia.

That is not say the pilgrimage to Riyadh passed by without controversy. The US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was criticised for holding a press conference with his Saudi counterpart, Adel bin Ahmed al-Jubeir, without informing the American media. Likewise, there was no mention of the Saudi state’s double standards on extremism, or its abominable record on human rights. But in truth, the restatement of a close US-Saudi working relationship on critical issues such as confronting Iran represented no great deviation in US foreign policy.

However, as Trump moved from the Middle East to Europe, there was renewed evidence of continued tensions within his administration. Having told an assembly of Arab states that he was not there to “lecture” them, the president then scolded Nato allies in an eight-minute speech in Brussels. Unsurprisingly, he returned to two favourite themes that play well to his base – the need for allies to pay more for defence, and to steer more of those efforts to focus on addressing immigration and terrorism. He was “very, very direct” with the Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, about the “chronic underpayments” from other countries that he says place an unjustifiable burden on US taxpayers.

This much is familiar terrain. Yet what was different about Trump’s comments at Nato headquarters – and what rattled the Nato heads of state more than the failure to confirm a deal on climate change – was the element that was conspicuous by its absence: Article 5.

Before the speech, the New York Times was briefed by the White House that the president would reaffirm America’s commitment to this article, which holds that an attack on one Nato member is an attack on the West. Since Trump declared Nato “obsolete” during his election campaign, his national security team – particularly the defence secretary, Jim Mattis, and the national security adviser, H R McMaster – have worked hard to reassure US allies of the country’s long-term commitment to collective defence. Trump’s omission of any mention of Article 5 was an indication of the see-sawing of influence between factions within the White House. It suggests that the insurgency against the Washington national security establishment, led by Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has not quite burned itself out. Having set the pace over Syria and North Korea, the “deep state” was forced to take a back seat again.

For all the sound and fury, the walls of Jericho are more solid than we might presume. The moral high ground can be a lonely place. Merkel may find it hard to stomach Trump but she will not be wishing away US military power from Europe with any relish. Germany still does not meet the 2 per cent defence spending commitment and the US still leads on Nato’s southern and eastern flanks. For all the talk of an EU army, there is no successor organisation for European security. As Stoltenberg clarified at the end of the summit, the “facts on the ground are the strongest possible commitment to the alliance”. For the moment, Nato remains the only game in town.

Meanwhile, in his meetings with both Trump and Vladimir Putin, the new French president, Emmanuel Macron, has signalled his intent to be the weather-maker in Europe. Bucking the trend towards Franco-Russian rapprochement, Macron scolded Putin and warned that France will use force in Syria in the event of another chemical weapons attack. He is betting on a Franco-German axis as the foundation of a new Europe in which France distinguishes itself as the leading ­security provider.

The Brexit negotiations cannot be isolated from these fundamental questions of European security. Whoever forms the new government will have to act fast to orientate their actions to this fast-changing orbit.

This article appeared in the New Statesman

Join our mailing list