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Merkel's blunt speech sparks fears of rupture in transatlantic pact

Jonathan Ernst, POOL/AFP | US President Donald Trump (R) talks to German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) and Tunisia's President Beji Caid Essebsi (C) at the G7 Summit's expanded session on May 27 in Taormina, Sicily.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel hinted that a major geostrategic shift may be under way when she told a Munich rally on Sunday that Europe must fight “for our destiny” in the wake of Brexit and an apparent US withdrawal from the world stage.


Speaking to some 2,500 supporters at an election rally in Munich, Merkel said European Union nations must remain united as they navigate Britain’s departure from the bloc and as disparities with the United States – on both policy and priorities – come into sharp relief.

"The era in which we could fully count on others is somewhat over, as I have noted in the past few days," Merkel said, in an apparent reference to her interactions with US and British leaders at a two-day G7 summit in Sicily that ended on Saturday.

"And so all I can say is that we, Europeans, must take our destiny into our own hands," she said.

Merkel also emphasised the need to maintain good relations with the United States and Britain, and the importance of being a good neighbour country, "wherever that is possible, including with Russia”.

“But we need to realise that we must fight for our own future, for our destiny as Europeans," she said.

During his nine-day tour of Europe and the Middle East, Trump ruffled feathers for criticising Germany for its large US trade surplus and chastising a gathering of NATO leaders for failing to meet targets on defence spending, while telling Middle Eastern leaders in Riyadh that the United States did not come to “lecture”.

On his official visit to Saudi Arabia, Trump was quick to declare that he was not there to reprimand the Muslim world, noted an editorial in France’s daily Le Monde, adding: “The US president did not bother to extend this same consideration to his European allies [in] Brussels.”

Many also noted that he declined to endorse NATO’s Article 5, its common defence clause that calls for an attack on one member to be considered an attack on all.

‘Watershed’ moment

Merkel’s remarks suggest that the longstanding alliances that have dominated the Western world since the end of World War II might be undergoing a seismic shift. As Britain begins the process of leaving the EU and Trump’s America recoils from the prospect of playing a global leadership role, Merkel may be right in anticipating that continental Europe will have to step up to ensure the Pax Europaea.

And this geopolitical realignment may prove troublesome for the United States, whether Trump realises it yet or not.

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, called Merkel’s comments a “watershed” moment and said that Europe’s disassociation from the United States is exactly what Washington has tried to avoid throughout the post-war era.

“Merkel saying Europe cannot rely on others & needs to take matters into its own hands is a watershed – & what US has sought to avoid since WW2,” Haass wrote in a Twitter post.

Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group and a former US State Department official, told the Washington Post that Trump is creating a crisis in transatlantic relations that could leave the US isolated in world affairs.

“Trump is creating the biggest transatlantic rift since the Iraq War, perhaps even since WWII,” Kupchan said. “This leaves the US exposed. If the Iran nuclear accord flounders, for example, Europe may well not end up on Trump’s side of a dangerous crisis.”

David Frum, senior editor at The Atlantic, also voiced concerns that Trump is undermining US interests overseas while his team remains under scrutiny at home for its questionable ties to Russia.

“Donald Trump is doing damage to the deepest and most broadly agreed foreign-policy interests of the United States,” he wrote. “He is doing so while people associated with his campaign are under suspicion of colluding with [Russian President] Vladimir Putin’s spy agencies to bring him to office. The situation is both ugly and dangerous.”

Frum has also noted that a rift between Berlin and Washington redraws continental politics in a way that benefits Moscow.

“Since 1945, the supreme strategic goal in Europe of the USSR and then Russia was the severing of the US-German alliance. Trump delivered,” Frum said on Twitter.

Former US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power said that the United States was “willfully” ceding its global leadership role, noting that other would-be hegemons stood to benefit.

“China cannot believe that the United States is willfully, nonchalantly vacating leadership of the world,” she tweeted. “This is a huge gift to China.”

EU evolution 'overdue'

But some see these shifts as an opportunity for Europe. With Merkel polling strongly as she faces re-election and Emmanuel Macron taking over as French president, “Europe’s centre of power now looks in steady, predictable hands,” wrote Christopher Smart, a senior policymaker for international economic affairs in the Obama administration, in a Chatham House report last week.

“With the new US administration at the very least distracted from its desire to remake the transatlantic relationship and an economic recovery that just may endure, a rare window has appeared for European leaders to concentrate on important reforms,” Smart said, including tackling France’s stubbornly high unemployment, shoring up Italian banks and ensuring that Brexit negotiations result in “a clear path forward”.

Smart said in an email that Trump’s recent meetings with European leaders “were certainly damaging to the relationship as well as to US leadership”. But he counselled European allies not to “overreact” to Trump’s NATO remarks.

“Much of his focus on NATO has been as it often is – on the money. And it is undeniably true that Europe needs to do more to contribute to NATO's needs,” he wrote. “Nevertheless, the overwhelming consensus among Americans is that our relationship with Europe is crucial to maintaining global security.”

Europe has long needed to take a greater role in its own defence, said Iain Begg, research fellow at the European Institute of the London School of Economics and associate fellow at Chatham House. Trump's insistence that European countries spend more on their own militaries “is one Europeans will have to heed, because the arithmetic of NATO is clearly unbalanced when the Americans incur over 70% of the costs”, he wrote in an email.

“In short, Europe taking more responsibility for its own fate is an overdue evolution.”

Begg went on to say that the shift in EU-US relations may not be “as emphatic as it appears”. The Obama administration’s declared “pivot” to Asia should have already been “a wake-up call” for Europe.

Russia, meanwhile, “with its 'divide and rule' mentality”, may welcome Washington’s estrangement from the Continent. But its relative economic weakness means that it still needs Europe, Begg said.

Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt, the lead Brexit negotiator for the European Parliament, welcomed Merkel's remarks as offering a chance for progress. “It's now time for EU to re-invent itself & move forward,” he wrote on Twitter.

Merkel spokesman Steffen Seibert walked back the chancellor's comments somewhat on Monday, saying that Merkel is "a convinced transatlanticist".

US-German relations are a "pillar of our foreign and security policy, and Germany will continue working to strengthen these relations", Seibert said.

It is the very strength of that alliance that makes forthright discussion necessary, he added.

"Precisely because they are so important, it's right to address our differences honestly."

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