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Transatlantic Relations: Germany, Europe, and the US

By Bastian Hermisson

Changes in the U.S. administration’s foreign policy – both in practice and in its rhetoric – have had reverberations across the European continent on a range of areas from trade to climate change, but with particularly significant consequences for the EU’s security and defence policies. With elections coming up in Germany this autumn, how much influence will these recent developments exert? And how are recent developments in Europe being perceived across the Atlantic?

What are the relevant lessons one can learn from the U.S. election campaign and the victory of Trump for the 2017 German federal elections in September?

There are at least three lessons.

First, we have seen in the United States, but also in France and elsewhere, that Russia actively tries to undermine the faith in our democratic political systems and to influence our domestic politics. That is something that Germany ought to be prepared for in light of its election campaign. It also shows that it would be a grave mistake to advocate for closer European ties to the Kremlin just because of the unreliability of the Trump administration on the other side of the Atlantic.

Second, post-election polls in the US have shown that people did not vote according to their personal economic needs, but according to their personal emotional needs. Their vote reflected which candidate best addressed their hopes, fears, dreams, and anxieties. We live in turbulent times. Many people have great anxiety when they look at a rapidly changing world with global insecurity, digitalisation, increasing migration, and urbanisation. Winning the trust of the electorate in such an environment without succumbing to nationalist populism entails showing that politics can provide a sense of security amidst these rapid changes. And showing that a liberal world order, open and diverse societies, parliamentary democracies, and a united Europe are in fact prerequisites for providing security during times of rapid change.

Last but not least, we are seeing in the United States where extreme political polarisation can lead, when different parts of the population do not engage with each other anymore, do not read the same news, do not even have discussions based on the same facts. Both the Left and the Right in the US increasingly see politics as a zero-sum game, which is harmful to the most important element of a democracy, the ability to compromise. And that is a challenge that will not disappear with Donald Trump, but runs much deeper than that. As Europeans, we should do our best to counter similar developments in Europe, to reach out across political divisions, to promote policies which are inclusive and do not pit different parts of the population against each other, and to value political compromises.

Germany is usually perceived as a champion of multilateralism and a leader in the fight against climate change, how is the election of Trump bearing consequences on the German (and therefore EU) positioning?

Despite her public image, Angela Merkel has done remarkably little to fight climate change. During her tenure she has vetoed more stringent vehicle emission standards in the EU, completely bungled the development of electric mobility in Germany, pushed back a coal phase-out, and significantly slowed down the growth of renewables. The German Greens remain the only party in Germany that prioritises the threat of climate change, and that has understood that the future of our economic prosperity, of our industrial sector, depends on a deep decarbonisation strategy. If one cares about the importance of fighting climate change in the Trump era, it will take the Greens to make it happen. Europe needs to become a leader on climate policy again. And that takes more than political statements by Angela Merkel and her peers.

At the same time, it would be a mistake to declare that “Europe First” is the answer to Trump’s “America First”. The strength of the European project lies not in its ability to act alone, but in strong global alliances and multilateral frameworks. Despite Donald Trump, the United States remains a vibrant and diverse democracy. We continue to have shared values between Europe and the United States, even if not on the level of the federal government, and have many aligned interests with a broad range of actors in the United States. Rather than cutting us off from the United States, it is in Europe’s interest to support and work with the many actors in the US who continue to believe in democracy and global responsibility. Whether or not this resistance will be politically successful in getting the US back on its feet is in the vital interest of the European Union. Now is therefore the time for greater and broader transatlantic engagement, not less.

In the past you’ve referred to partnerships between cities and regions in the US and EU. What do these alliances mean politically and are they another way to continue EU-US relations?

Along with civil society, cities and states in the US are already stepping up to counter the Trump administration’s most harmful policies. Whether they are providing safe spaces for undocumented immigrants, welcoming refugees, or renewing their commitment to the Paris climate agreement, local actors are leading the way. The United States is a federal system, and many policies can be shaped at the state and local level. This provides an opening for Europe to engage actors beyond the federal level. It could involve strengthening exchange programmes or sister-city-networks, or creating a formal dialogue on climate policy, trade, and investment with U.S. states such as California or New York. California alone is the 6th largest economy in the world. That provides it with significant influence, both inside the US and globally. In this spirit, the German state of Baden-Württemberg and the state of California initiated the “Under2MoU” ahead of the Paris climate summit, where regions around the world committed to climate action beneath the national level. There is also the C40, a network of megacities leading the way on climate policy, and more than 130 U.S. cities have signed on to the “Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy”. So there is much to build on beneath the federal level.

How closely are the 2017 German elections being watched in Washington and by the White House? Is Germany associated with the EU in U.S. foreign policy thinking?

Angela Merkel has been dubbed the new ‘leader of the free world’ by U.S. media. Beyond the Trump administration, many Americans place high hopes on German leadership not just within the European Union but also on the world stage, since the US has all but abandoned its role as leader of the multilateral world order. However, neither the German public nor its political leadership is yet truly prepared to take on this role. Most importantly, the strength of Germany depends on the strength of the European Union. The German institutions in Washington are acutely aware of this, and are framing any foreign policy debate in an EU context. There is also a close coordination of the EU Member State embassies with each other and with the EU mission. It will be crucial during the coming years that this continues and that EU Member States, including Germany, do not play along with the bilateral Trump policy of divide and conquer, but that there is continued close coordination, and visible common European initiatives in Washington.

Whether Angela Merkel or Martin Schulz becomes the next Chancellor, the Franco-German couple – with new French President Emmanuel Macron – could revive the EU: how is that scenario perceived in Washington?

Germany is seen by many in the White House as their main ideological antagonist on the global stage. And they are actively working on isolating Germany within the European Union. They are attempting to exacerbate the discontent with Germany that exists in many European countries, i.e. because of German austerity policies and because of its trade surplus. A revitalised Franco-German alliance to strengthen the European Union, to ease the burden of austerity, and to increase economic productivity and opportunities throughout Europe is therefore not in the interest of this U.S. administration. Nevertheless it is in the vital interest of Germany, France, and the EU. And with a Macron government in place it could actually happen. It seems to me that the White House, as well as many Germans, underestimates what France can contribute to such a revitalisation. France is, for example, far ahead of Germany on nationwide access to broadband, on early childcare, on high-speed public transport, all of which are essential elements of a successful economy in the 21st century. There is a lot Germany can learn from France, not just the other way around.

Regarding NATO and European defence, how does the Trump presidency affect the German position on security and defence, and by extension the EU’s position?

The U.S. administration’s push for increased defence spending on behalf of its European partners is nothing new. This is an old tune that was sung during the Obama years as well, albeit in nicer way. So a push towards stronger EU defence capabilities would be welcomed not just by the Trump administration, but by the wider foreign policy establishment in the US. This is also related to a long-term trend since the end of the Cold War of the US increasingly looking westwards to the Pacific, being less focused on Europe, and therefore wanting Europe, and Germany specifically, to shoulder more responsibility.

The obsession with the 2% goal, however, seems misplaced to me. The question should rather be what capabilities the EU is lacking, and how those capabilities can best be created or mobilised through common EU efforts. Whether additional defence spending is necessary is a secondary question. It is true that Europeans cannot rely on the US anymore the way they used to, i.e. regarding stability in the Western Balkans. This is an EU responsibility that demands the necessary independent capabilities. Any future German government will have to understand this. Angela Merkel also made this point during a recent speech, when she pointed out that “the times when we [Europeans] could completely depend on others are, to a certain extent, over.”

That does not mean the EU will become militarily independent of NATO. European defence remains dependent on a functioning NATO, particularly on our Eastern border, i.e. in the Baltic States.  That is one of the reasons why the further development of politics in the United States remains of vital interest to Europe, and why Europeans should continue to engage with a broad range of like-minded actors in the United States, including in the U.S. Congress.

Does “Trumponomics” signal the revival of protectionism but also the death warrant of the Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP)?

TTIP in its current form is dead as a doornail, both in the United States under the Trump administration and in Europe. It is perceivable that in the next years there could be a move towards a watered down “TTIP light”, but even that is unlikely. The US is steering a more protectionist course. This administration is not in favour of multilateral free trade agreements. They figure it is much easier to bully smaller economies into bilateral agreements favourable to the United States.

It is therefore unfortunate that the TTIP negotiations under President Obama were not used to establish a blueprint for a modern sustainable trade and investment agreement. Now it is up to the EU to engage with other regions of the world as well as in the World Trade Organisation.

What are the possible scenarios for governing after the September 2017 German federal election? Will there be far reaching consequences for U.S.-Germany relations?

Having lived through the U.S. election campaign, I have grown wary of relying on polls to predict the outcome of an election, especially months ahead of time. It currently remains an open race, with a grand coalition just as possible as a two-way or three-way coalition with smaller parties, including the Greens.

The crucial question for transatlantic relations is whether the next German government will commit to strengthening the European Union, and whether it will continue to be firmly anchored in the West, in the sense of an open and inclusive political space that is based on universal rights, on democracy, on openness and responsibility towards the rest of the world, and on the belief in a rules-based liberal global order. For a positive long-term relationship with the United States, and for constructive transatlantic cooperation on tackling global problems, both of these will be essential. That will not help with the Trump administration, however. There will continue to be serious frictions in the years to come on climate policy, trade policy, security policy, and indeed on the very concept of a rules-based global order. Donald Trump has abandoned the West. For him, “America First” means “America Alone”, an America that abandons any responsibility for the rest of the world and to whom no rules apply.

But the United States is much more diverse than the current administration. And the idea of the West is not dead yet in the United States. We should not give up on it in Europe or Germany either.

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Transatlantic Relations: Germany, Europe, and the US

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