Merkel’s plea for European unity may be a turning point

Chancellor puts EU at the heart of upcoming German election with unusual frankness

Speaking to around 2,000 people in a beer tent in Munich, German chancellor Angela Merkel has said that Europe can no longer completely rely on its allies. Video: Reuters

 

Perhaps it’s the warm air or the free-flowing beverages, but German politicians have a long tradition of surprising themselves with what they say in beer tents.

And so it appeared on Sunday with Angela Merkel, when she addressed a local chapter of her CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). The German chancellor arrived looking drained but soon drew energy from the brass band and the cheering crowd and, it seemed, casually announced a major pivot in her foreign policy.  

“The days in which we could completely depend on others are in some ways over, something I’ve experienced in the last few days,” said the German leader, just back from a long weekend with American president Donald Trump.

But that remark was a reaction to what came before: Merkel’s passionate plea for “more Europe” as the answer to the continent’s problems.

“Europe is a union of peace and freedom and it is worth fighting for,” she said, doing a visible double-take as the crowd put down their beer glasses to give thunderous applause.

For a politician with antennae as sensitive as Merkel, this reaction was worth a dozen opinion polls: a roar of approval for Europe in a Munich beer tent from people who traditionally put Bavaria first, second and third.

While riding that wave of applause, she made her dependability remarks, before concluding: “We Europeans have to take our fate in our own hands, naturally in friendship with the United States of America and Great Britain . . . but we must be aware that we have to fight for our future as Europeans and I’d like to do that together with you.”

Damage limitation

Her speech was not directed against America: it was a wake-up call for Europe and the opening shot of her re-election bid for the September 24th poll. Her Munich message: Germany needs a strong Europe, and I am the key to that.

The German leader had barely wet her whistle with beer – usually alcohol-free, or diluted with lemonade – before her quotes took on a life of her own. By Monday morning the damage limitation was in high gear. The Nato and G7 encounters with Trump were a disappointment, her officials conceded, with common ground on free trade and Russia overshadowed by US procrastination over the Paris climate agreement.

Worse may come, given Trump’s reported determination to tackle the “very bad” victory march of the German car industry.

Above all, Sicily was the moment Berlin accepted emotionally what they had intellectually already processed: issues without immediate, tangible gains for the US are not of interest to the Trump administration.

Merkel’s Munich speech was about drawing the logical conclusion: if Washington is pulling back, and London pulling out, it’s time for EU members to pull together.

Nothing to lose

What’s new isn’t her message, but its urgency. Since taking office in 2005, one Merkel mantra has been to seize crises as opportunities. The German leader identified the crises of a decade ago as an opportunity to fill in gaps in banking regulation and to finish the incomplete euro process.

The refugee crisis: a chance to push for an EU asylum policy worth the name. A series of Islamist terror attacks? A chance to break open national security silos. The protectionist President Trump? An overdue wake-up call to complete the European single market and get ahead on the digital industrial revolution. But Europe’s problem has never been analysis or aspiration, but execution.

“For years we have seen EU summit conclusions saying Europe has to strengthen itself on security, defence and foreign policy, but it’s not gone beyond that,” said Wolfgang Ischinger, head of the Munich Security Conference. “When, if not now? Decisions have to follow.”

In Munich, Merkel was so outspoken because, politically, she has nothing to lose. By the time French president Emmanuel Macron is up and running, and in a position to press political demands unpopular across the Rhine – such as a euro finance minister or pooled sovereign debt – Germany will be in the middle of its own election season.

What’s clear is that Trump and Brexit have placed the EU – that much-maligned, taken-for-granted political entity – front and centre in Germany’s looming federal election.

That’s why German Social Democrat (SPD) leader Martin Schulz, Merkel’s challenger in September, hurried before television cameras on Sunday evening to declare: “Europe is the answer.”

On Sunday in Munich, a sadder-but-wiser chancellor didn’t collapse Germany’s postwar transatlantic co-operation, merely drew the conclusions of the new status quo.

Her door remains open to the “deal-making” US president, but Merkel is calling time on those who take a similarly transactional approach to the European Union: a timely warning to Ireland’s next taoiseach.

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