A Wary Germany Keeps an Eye on the U.S. Transition

7 MINS READNov 17, 2016 | 02:56 GMT
A Wary Germany Keeps an Eye on the U.S. Transition
With the impending change in U.S. leadership from Barack Obama to Donald Trump, European leaders, especially German Chancellor Angela Merkel, are wondering what changes the new president's policies will bring.
(JESCO DENZEL/Bundesregierung via Getty Images)

U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in Germany on Wednesday evening during the final foreign tour of his presidency. His agenda in Berlin includes meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel as well as the French president and the prime ministers of the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain. When Obama departs Europe on Friday for Peru, he will leave behind a European Union worried about its present and uncertain about its future. Germany, as the European Union's largest political and economic player, has particular reasons to be concerned about the new phase of world politics that will start in January.

During his election campaign, President-elect Donald Trump said he would seek to renegotiate the United States' most important trade deals and protect its economy from foreign competition. He also said he would seek to improve ties with Russia and suggested that the United States might not defend NATO allies that failed to meet the alliance's military spending targets. Despite those comments, there is still significant uncertainty about what the changes in White House foreign policy will look like in practice. As a result, most European governments have chosen to wait for clearer signals from the next U.S. administration about its foreign policy priorities before adapting their strategies to the new global order.

EU members have different concerns about the future U.S. government. The primary worry for countries in Western Europe is that Trump's victory will strengthen anti-globalization sentiments in the Continent. France, Germany and the Netherlands will hold general elections next year. Italy could also hold general elections if the government is defeated in a Dec. 4 referendum on constitutional reforms. In each of these countries, political parties that question the free movement of goods, services, people and capital in the European Union, and propose to leave the eurozone, are polling strongly.

In Eastern Europe, on the other hand, a weaker NATO and a more aggressive Russia are the chief concerns. Countries such as Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are worried that the United States will grow more tolerant of Russian influence in the region. Moscow can use multiple tools to influence political developments in the European Union, including its ties to Russian-speaking minorities in many Eastern European countries, a large propaganda machine and links with Euroskeptic parties across the bloc. Eastern Europeans are also concerned about Trump's suggestion that the United States could reverse course and recognize Russia's annexation of Crimea, which would set a terrifying precedent for the region.

Germany's Multiple Concerns

The government in Berlin shares the concerns of its western and eastern neighbors. Germany's exports-based economic model means that the country relies on access to foreign markets to generate domestic jobs. Membership in the eurozone also means that since Germany and some of its main trading partners share a currency, its exports to them are probably cheaper than they would be if it had its own currency. These factors explain why Berlin has a lot to fear about the rise in anti-globalization sentiments in Europe and the United States. The multiple problems that delayed the ratification of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between the European Union and Canada show how controversial free trade pacts can be in Europe. Negotiations on a free trade agreement between the European Union and the United States, which already were frozen before the U.S. election, will probably be abandoned.

But Germany's greatest fears are much closer to home. Political parties such as Italy's Five Star Movement and France's National Front have promised to hold referendums on their membership in the eurozone should they access power. Whether the currency union could have survived a Greek exit in 2015 is a matter of debate, but it's clear that it would not survive a French or Italian exit.

Even if those parties do not gain leadership roles, their moderate rivals are embracing protectionist measures. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is seeking to represent his party in the upcoming presidential election, recently said the European Union should introduce a "Buy European Act" and increase tariffs on U.S. imports should America abandon its commitments to the Paris climate change agreement, a concern also based on Trump's campaign pronouncements. At this point, a Buy European Act is far from a Buy French Act, but Germany has reasons to fear that popular pressure for protectionism would influence moderate politicians to defend more nationalist policies that would hurt German exports.

At the same time, Germany shares Eastern Europe's concern about a weakening NATO and a potential increase in Russian influence on EU affairs. Since the beginning of the financial crisis almost a decade ago, Germany became the bloc's political leader based mostly on the strength of its economy. But Berlin is coming to terms with the fact that global power and influence cannot hinge solely on economic might. The crisis in Ukraine and the growing threat of terrorism are pushing Germany to take a more prominent role on defense and security in Europe. As a result, Berlin has recently worked on plans to increase military cooperation in the European Union.

On Monday, EU member states asked the European Commission to come up with proposals by mid-2017 to increase coordination in European defense planning and spending. These initiatives are likely to be modest and far from the idea of creating an EU army that some member states defended. But they suggest that, at a time when additional financial and economic integration in the European Union seems out of the question, security and defense matters are among the few remaining policy areas in which a minimum consensus is still possible. Though EU members started to discuss these issues long before the U.S. election, the uncertainty about Trump's administration has reinvigorated the debate.

Germany's Constraints

Germany's strategy will face significant constraints, however. As in other policy areas, EU members have different interests when it comes to foreign, security and defense policies. While countries such as Italy or Spain would like EU security policies to focus primarily on Northern Africa and the Middle East because of their concerns connected to migrants, terrorism and energy security, Poland and the Baltic states will want defense policies that focus on Russia.

Countries such as Poland are also wary of any defense plans that could conflict with NATO operations. While governments in Eastern Europe are worried about the White House's plans for the region, they want to avoid making any moves that could pull them further from the United States. Should Eastern Europe support Germany's plans, the region would still resist any proposals that concentrate decision-making in the hands of Germany and France. This could go against the wishes of France, which sees itself as the EU leader when it comes to defense. Even in the best-case scenario of greater EU unity on defense issues, the bloc is still years away from what the French government has defined as "strategic autonomy" from the United States.

In addition, Berlin will probably push for an extension of economic sanctions against Russia, which expire in late January. Sanctions on Moscow are a controversial issue in the European Union, with members such as Italy, Austria, Hungary and Greece questioning them. In many cases, U.S. pressure on the countries resisting Russian sanctions helped the European Union achieve the unanimity that such actions require. While it's unclear whether a rapprochement between the United States and Russia will actually occur, the German government understands that improved relations between the White House and the Kremlin would make it difficult for the European Union to maintain its sanctions against Moscow. So Berlin is likely to request an extension of the sanctions, even if it's only for six more months, to preserve the status quo and buy the European Union more time to assess the first moves of the Trump administration.

Finally, there is the issue of German authority in Europe. Most EU members ignored a German-backed plan to distribute asylum seekers across the bloc, which shows that countries are willing to selectively challenge Berlin on sensitive issues. Political calculations in some of the European Union's largest players will also interfere with plans for Continental cooperation in 2017, preventing some governments from making significant decisions during their electoral seasons. Depending on the elections' results, Euroskeptic positions could be strengthened starting next year, undermining whatever plans Berlin is making for the future of the European Union.

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