No honeymoon: US relations, EU future challenge Merkel

BERLIN (AP) — A record 171 days after Germany’s election, Angela Merkel is set to pledge for the fourth time to dedicate her efforts to Germans’ well-being and “protect them from harm.”

Merkel has 12 often-turbulent years as chancellor behind her. But fulfilling her oath of office may be even harder this time with U.S. President Donald Trump declaring that “trade wars are good” and threatening German automakers, a fractious European Union seeking to shape its future and a potentially wobbly German governing coalition.

Parliament is due to re-elect Merkel Wednesday, nearly six months after Europe’s biggest economy voted and over a month after a coalition deal was concluded. The alliance of her conservative Union bloc with the center-left Social Democrats can’t expect a honeymoon.

“A lot of work lies ahead of us,” Merkel said Monday. She added that “we may be faced with new challenges: we had not, for instance, envisioned the latest developments on trade in the coalition agreement and we will have to answer them too. But I am confident that we will succeed.”

Merkel, often named the world’s most powerful woman and Europe’s most powerful leader, said repeatedly during the postelection stalemate that global politics won’t wait for Germany.

In German-U.S. relations, military spending is already an irritant: Germany is one of many countries that fall short of a guideline for NATO allies to spend 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense. Now, escalating trade tensions are opening up a new difficulty.

Trump said over the weekend he had told the EU: “Open up the barriers and get rid of your tariffs, and if you don’t do that, we’re going to tax Mercedes-Benz, we’re going to tax BMW” — two of Germany’s most prominent exporters.

So far, Merkel has taken a diplomatic approach toward Trump and tried to engage him, but also distanced herself by suggesting last summer that Europe can no longer entirely rely on the U.S. Her initial response to the threat of trade tariffs has been to insist on talking through differences.

“If these unilateral actions can’t be avoided, we will have to consider how we can answer that,” she said. “But I am counting on talks, and there will be many opportunities for that.”

Jacqueline Boysen, a Merkel biographer, said that “she will react to Trump like she has reacted to (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan, like she has reacted to other provocations — probably cautiously, and as long as they don’t get serious about restricting freedom of trade, she will of course hold back with reactions.”

When Merkel became chancellor in 2005, she took great care to rebuild relations with President George W. Bush that chilled under predecessor Gerhard Schroeder. But Boysen said there’s no serious chance of Merkel building “a deep or other kind of friendship” with Trump.

Closer to home, the coalition is promising “a new departure for Europe.” The governing parties say Germany is prepared to pay more into the EU budget, which will be stretched by Britain’s departure, and say “the EU’s renewal will only succeed if Germany and France work together for it with all their strength.”

Much else remains vague. An early task will be responding to French President Emmanuel Macron’s calls for an ambitious EU reform agenda. Merkel, who plans to visit Paris soon, said Germany needs “a Europe that shares the same values and acts together, particularly toward the outside world, and we … will make our contribution.”

That won’t be easy amid postelection gridlock in Italy and tensions between western nations and countries such as Poland and Hungary.

At home, Merkel will head a much-changed Cabinet and can expect speculation about how long she stays in office. She says she plans to serve a full term, but few expect her to run again in 2021. Merkel has said only that she won’t be chancellor for another 12 years.

The same parties started work in 2013 with an overpowering 188-seat parliamentary majority. In September’s election, their support dropped by nearly 14 percentage points in total.

They now have only a 44-seat advantage. They face a divided opposition but its biggest party, the nationalist, anti-migrant Alternative for Germany, will be relentless in assailing the government.

The Social Democrats agreed to join the government again only after an initial postelection pledge to go into opposition and lengthy internal wrangling. They were widely viewed as the winner in coalition talks, wresting the powerful finance ministry from Merkel’s conservatives. About two-thirds of Social Democrat members approved the deal in a ballot.

That still leaves a strong coalition-skeptic faction in the party, which will be keen to stress its differences with Merkel’s conservative bloc. Some smart personnel decisions by Merkel have helped defuse strains among conservatives after their own poor election showing.

A pledge in the coalition deal to carry out a “stocktaking” of the agreement halfway through the parliamentary term underlines the traditional rivals’ wariness about each other after governing together for eight of the past 12 years.

The parties’ leaders were keen to stress Monday that they see the coalition lasting until 2021. But one earlier offered a more nuanced assessment.

“We want and are working for a full term,” the interior minister-designate, Horst Seehofer, told ZDF television. “But I can’t tell you today what international development might perhaps lead in three years to a stress test for a government that it doesn’t pass.”

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