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Derek Scally: What if Trump is right about Germany?

The US has not invented new problems but has pointed out inconsistencies in Germany’s trade, foreign and defence policies

If we didn't know better we might think all was well in German-US relations. For the first time in its 142-year history, the Wagner festival in Bayreuth opened last week with a premiere from an American director. Yuval Sharon's production of Lohengrin received mostly rave reviews. Welcoming the American director into Germany's cultural Valhalla, Die Welt daily warbled: "One cannot escape the beauty of this production."

Two days later, defying a pitiless sun and 33-degree heat, Richard Grenell, the first openly gay US ambassador in Berlin, was a VIP guest at the capital’s 40th anniversary gay pride parade.

At the top of Trump's to-do list since entering the White House has been cultivating a relationship with Angela Merkel that resembles an abusive marriage

And let’s not forget Donald Trump’s own coming out. In 2015, after years claiming he was of Swedish descent, Trump told a documentary film-maker he was “very proud” of his “fantastic German background”. As a property mogul he claimed to have “typical German characteristics”. Asked to name one, he said “I get things done”.

Yet at the top of his to-do list since entering the White House has been cultivating a relationship with chancellor Angela Merkel that resembles an abusive marriage.


He has followed up humiliation online with compliments in person, then another virtual attack. Merkel’s energy policies, for instance, have made Germany “Russia’s hostage”, Mr Trump argues on Twitter. When they meet shortly thereafter he praises their “wonderful relationship”.


In the overheated German capital this summer, the question prompting heated debate is: why has Germany become the president’s public enemy number one?

Quietly some in Berlin are beginning to whisper the unthinkable: what if, in some respects, Trump has a point?

For years everyone except Germany has had a problem with its huge current account surplus. The EU, the IMF and Germany’s neighbours all say – on an annual basis – that it is unsustainable, damaging and possibly even illegal for Germany to consistently export more than it imports.

Until now such criticisms were water off the duck’s back in a Germany where almost everyone – politicians, economists and journalists – subscribes to one narrow set of ordoliberal economic theories.

In their blinkered self-confirming world, the export boom is a vote of confidence in high-end German products (let’s not discuss the euro exchange rate that makes these cars and kitchens more affordable).

Germans believe everyone should live by their economic rule book which believes in balanced budgets and pro-cyclical reforms during a downturn. It foresees only a limited role for state stimulus, and too bad if we’re damaging your economy.

Now, with Trump, Germany has a crude but dogged critic it cannot shake off so easily.

Gas pipelines

The same applies to his criticism of the Nordstream gas pipelines. Apart from the tone, and the hope of selling more US gas to Europe, there’s nothing new here.

Germany’s eastern neighbours have been shouting for years about the billions in lost gas transit fees, not to mention the blackmail potential, thanks to under-sea pipelines from Russia to Germany that bypass Poland and Ukraine. They have warned that Berlin’s energy policy is a huge strategic risk, but until Trump made it headline news their criticisms were shrugged off in Berlin.

What’s interesting is how a little-noticed paper published by Germany’s federal security academy, part of the defence ministry, agrees with Berlin’s critics. Germany’s attempts to play down others’ concerns about Nordstream conceal “neither the many contradictions nor the lack of credibility of German energy policy”. In a tone that is more polite than Trump’s, but no less scathing, it adds that “in the discussion in Germany, the potential strategic consequences are largely airbrushed out”.

White House strategists have not invented new problems but repackaged existing inconsistencies in German trade, foreign and defence policy.

Having these criticisms delivered by Trump is the rudest of awakenings. But some in Germany are surprised it took so long for Berlin to be called out by someone with clout.

Dr Ulrike Guérot, founder of the European Democracy Lab, likens Germany to “a woman in high heels who has been standing on people’s toes for years yet is always surprised when they grimace in pain”.

Other Berlin-watchers accept criticism of Germany’s low defence spending or its hard-nosed defence of its auto giants. But few join the dots or, if they do, don’t want to discuss in public what they see.

Protective European flag

After decades wrapping itself in the protective European flag, the united Germany approaching its 30th birthday is a very different country.

It is a large, prosperous country whose deep-seated interest in holding the European project together is now complemented by – even competing with – increasingly strident national interests and national egotism.

Those who see it hide it well. Others choose not to see because they prefer to cling to a self-image as the best most selfless novice in the convent.

Germany’s European partners don’t want a moralistic neighbour but an honest one, a partner who – finally – lays out how it will balance its EU and global leadership role with its legitimate national interests.

Until Germany does that, the Nordstream paper published by the government warns, Berlin “cannot demand political solidarity from economically weaker or smaller EU member states”.

An effective European response to Trump requires Berlin to get off its high horse and define its interest. And for Germany’s EU neighbours to tell us why they let Berlin get away with so much for so long.

Derek Scally is Berlin Corespondent