In spite of the fact that Germany’s economy remains a unique post-2008 European success story, Angela Merkel’s domestic reputation is likely permanently marred due to her mismanagement of the migrant crisis and the subsequent increase in a wide variety of political extremisms that were largely absent from both German states during the second half of the 20th century. Furthermore, the fact that in the recent German election, Merkel came back to power more because of the un-inspirational qualities of her mainstream opponents rather than because of receiving anything close to a confident electoral mandate, it remains received wisdom that Merkel will not lead her party during the next federal German election.
That being said, rumours that a schism between Merkel’s CDU and its long time Bavarian partner CSU would lead to an abrupt resignation of the woman who has led Germany since 2005 have largely subsided and yet again Merkel has proved she is Germany’s foremost political survivor.
When Merkel came to power she inherited from Chancellor Gerhard Schröder a somewhat multipolar foreign policy by the limited standards of modern Europe. Schröder maintained excellent relations with Russian President Putin while he along with former French President Jacques Chirac led a European rejection of the US/UK war on Iraq in 2003. Furthermore, unlike Merkel, Schröder had many allies in southern Europe, particularly in Italy.
While for a time it seemed as though Merkel would carry on many of the foreign policies of her predecessor, during the Obama years it became clear that Merkel would become the junior partner in Obama’s version of neo-Atlanticism. Merkel’s “attached at the hip” foreign policies in respect of Obama reached their zenith during Obama’s second term. It was at this time that Merkel led Europe’s anti-Russian charge against Russia in the aftermath of the 2014 Kiev coup while a year later Merkel also bolstered Obama’s stance on the JCPOA (Iran nuclear deal) against many sceptical voices in the US Congress. Throughout this period, the European Union came to consider the now de-facto dead TTIP, a would be free trading deal with North America, all the while the idea of creating a freer trading arrangement with China seemed to fall largely on deaf European ears.
The election of Donald Trump sent profound shockwaves through the circles of the European foreign policy elite that have been led by Merkel more or less since she assumed office. Donald Trump’s insistence that NATO’s European members pay more of their GDP into the alliance combined with his lack of enthusiasm for pursuing wars in the Middle East and on Russia’s western frontier compared with Obama has now been compounded with tariffs against America’s traditional European partners while the US has now threatened sanctions against European companies and nations who continue to transact business with Iran.
The result has been that Europe has been largely blindsided by a Trump administration that has successfully called multiple European bluffs regarding both tariffs and the JCPOA. Now Merkel finds herself in the position of leading Europe’s rhetorical defence of the JCPOA along side Federica Mogherini, while Merkel now faces the possibility of having to make a similar choice in respect of Turkey, a once cherished US partner that is now being treated as a kind of enemy by several factions in Washington.
Angela Merkel’s record on Turkey is rather abysmal not only because she has been seen as soft on policing anti-Turkish/pro-PKK extremism on the streets of Germany but also because her government prohibited Turkey’s President Erdogan from addressing Turks living in Germany even though she famously rolled out the red carpet for Barack Obama’s campaign stops in Europe. Germany’s opposition to Turkey’s anti-YPG/PKK Operation Olive Branch further damaged Germany’s reputation in Ankara. Furthermore, Merkel’s period in power has seen Turkophobia becoming fashionable not only among Germany’s far-right but among self-confessed liberals who continue to mock and misunderstand the Turkish President and the policies of his AK Party.
That being said, throughout Merkel’s time in power, the status of Turkey’s customs union with the EU has never been in question. Now that the US is upping the stakes in its economic war with Turkey, a culturally Turkophobic Merkel government has now found itself defending Turkey using much of the same language it has used to defend Iran. Here it is not so much that Merkel’s ministers are defending Turkey out of any fraternal motivation but instead because Turkey is another crucial economic partner of Europe that is falling victim to Trump’s protectionist onslaught.
Moreover, Trump’s largely successful drive to end the de-facto preferential treatment that European exports once received in the American market has forced all European leaders to seriously consider a new reality where the global capital of free trade will be China rather than the US. In spite of this, Europe’s parochial attitude to genuine free trading agreements with partners that could revitalise and even revolutionise the long term economic prospects of the European Union continues to hold Europe back from being able to leverage an economically strong and political unilateral United States. The same is true in respect of Russia where mild indications of an EU-Russian economic rapprochement have thus far led to virtually nothing.
However, now that Turkey, a free trading partner of the EU and a long time NATO member is coming under the same economic pressures that the Trump administration has levelled against an opponent like Iran and a long time partner like the EU, a moment of decision has come to Berlin, even though it is not one Merkel has prepared for as until recently few in Europe expected it.
Because of this, at the very minimum, Donald Trump has inadvertently given Merkel a new lease on her seemingly fading political life. Due to her years of experience, Merkel is being closely observed by not only Iran and Turkey but by Russia, Japan, China and the major south Asian economies as someone who just might defy America’s unilateralism from a western position. However, in order to do this she will need to drop the “user friendly” European bigotry against China, the Obama era anti-Russian crusade, the Turkophobic atmosphere which now dominates mainstream politics in central and western Europe, all the while working on a balanced way to continue trading with Iran without getting major European companies blacklisted from the US markets that most EU companies still depend on in a substantial way.
Merkel clearly has her work cut out for her but unlike in domestic politics where her fate has largely been sealed as a failure, circumstance has now made her a key player in terms of world trade and foreign policy. At the very minimum circumstance have extended Merkel’s lease on political life while there remains a possibility that she will in fact roll back the anti-eastern policies of the EU which flourished in the Obama era but are now impractical in the Trump era unless Europe wants to be squeezed into an irrelevant economic box sitting between the Atlantic ocean and the growing economies of Asia.