Where do Merkel’s comments leave the EU and Canada?

If a serious rift between the U.S. and Europe were to develop, “Canada might potentially play a bridge-building role,” Achim Hurrelmann says in an interview.

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May 30, 2017
German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, Germany, May 30, 2017. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

Up until this past weekend, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has publicly avoided outright conflict with U.S. President Donald Trump. But after Trump’s performance at this month's G7 Summit — characterizations of which ranged from “drunk tourist” to “disaster” — Merkel apparently had had enough.

“The times when we could completely rely on others are, to an extent, over,” Merkel told a crowd at a Bavarian beer hall in Munich on Sunday. “We Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands, of course in friendship with the United States and in friendship with Great Britain and as good neighbors wherever it is possible…. But we need to know that we have to fight for our own future and destiny as Europeans,” Merkel said.

This caused something of an international media storm, with questions around what it would look like for Europe to go it alone and what Merkel’s statement would mean for U.S.-German relations. While Trump hit back in a tweet, and far-right commentators in the U.S. aired their outrage at the chancellor’s comments, at home Merkel was defended by even her most ardent political rivals.

How big a deal was the statement, and what would a Europe distancing itself from the U.S. look like? What would this mean for multilateral institutions, international agreements, and Canada? We spoke with Achim Hurrelmann, Director of Carleton University’s Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies — and a German national — to find out. 

How significant was Chancellor Merkel’s statement over the weekend?

I do think it's significant. Some people have pointed out that Merkel has previously said similar things and that it's not necessarily a big surprise to say that Europe needs to develop more capacities of its own in international affairs. It's a truism, almost, and something that Trump probably wouldn't even dispute. Still, she framed this very clearly in reference to the G7 by saying, 'Well, as we've just experienced, we can no longer rely on the United States.' That, I think, gives these comments added significance. It’s an important and relevant statement, pointing out that [while] she doesn't want to throw cooperation with the U.S. under the bus, she says we cannot rely on them to the extent that we could before. 

What will Merkel’s words mean for the German-American relationship?

Clearly the United States was supportive of the idea of building up European integration when it was first launched in the 1950s, and European integration is the context in which we should see these recent comments. It's not about Germany going it alone, but it is about focusing on the European Union and making sure that the EU, particularly in global and international affairs, also in security policy and so on, develops its own capabilities. 

"It's not about Germany going it alone, but it is about making sure that the EU develops its own capabilities."

As I said, that is not necessarily something that the United States would find worrisome, especially under Trump, because he has this agenda of focusing more inwards, on the United States, and he has been complaining that the U.S. is shouldering too much responsibility. The idea of the Europeans expanding their capabilities here is not necessarily a threat to the United States. But of course, the way in which it was framed and in which the statement was reported, I think justifiably so, is a criticism of Trump's behaviour at the G7 Summit, and as such it could be problematic for the relationship. 

What do you think was behind Merkel’s decision to speak out now?

It seems that she was seriously and honestly frustrated. Of course, we don't know what happened during the summit, but Trump apparently did block many declarations that the other member states of the G7 had agreed on, and it seems that she was troubled and frustrated by this.

But this whole comment also has an internal dimension in Germany — which I think hasn't been pointed out enough — in the context of the upcoming election in Germany. Merkel's strategy has always been, even in the previous election, to anticipate topics that the opposition might use to build a profile to damage her electorally. The fields that her main opponent, Martin Schultz from the Social Democrats, could be expected to emphasize are first, anti-Americanism, and second, a strong emphasis on European integration, because he's the former president of the European Parliament. So I think an important dimension here is that she essentially closed the door to being attacked on that front, by being critical of Trump and very symbolically supportive of European integration. She made it very difficult for the Social Democrats to distinguish themselves from her policy in that respect. 

How do you see relations between Western European countries shifting in the near future, as a response to Trump?

"Once [the UK is] out there might actually be an opening for new initiatives."

There is a very strong realization now, particularly among the leaders of France and Germany, that it is absolutely essential for Germany and France to work together well, to get some issues in the European Union moving again where there hasn't been much progress — the external role of the EU is one of these issues. Clearly the EU will be very consumed by Brexit in the next few years, [which] will take a lot of energy and will make it difficult to make other, far-reaching decisions. But the hope is that with [France’s Emmanuel] Macron and Merkel, there could be a revival of the close French-German relationship that has in the past been the driving force for European integration. Particularly in the foreign policy realm, the fact that the UK might be leaving might actually make things easier, because the UK has been particularly protective of its national sovereignty in the EU. Once they are out, there might actually be an opening for new initiatives, for instance creating an EU headquarters for the EU's military missions abroad. That's something that has been discussed for a long time that the UK has essentially blocked. 

What could Europe “going it alone” mean for institutions like NATO? Deals like CETA? The Paris Agreement?

I don't think the Europeans want to put into question any of these agreements, including NATO. I think there's a strong commitment on the European side to NATO; however, not necessarily a commitment to actually fulfilling that two percent defence spending target. Canada is in the same boat of course — many NATO member states have formally signed up to that but don't see that as a priority. But I think the Europeans will remain committed to NATO. If they decide to further invest in European capabilities in security and defence policy, they will find a way to connect that to NATO, to not duplicate resources or see that as being in competition of any kind. 

I think recent developments are actually positive for CETA in that, first of all, they emphasize the need for EU-Canada cooperation, particularly as it becomes more difficult with the United States. The EU is also very committed to showing that CETA can work, to demonstrate that they are actually effective in getting things done. 

On the Paris accord — clearly again there's commitment on the European side to stick to the accord, and I think that would not waver, even if Trump decides to withdraw. But of course on the global scale, that would make it much more difficult to make the accord a success. 

Where does all this leave Canada?

Canada has no alternative to trying to work with the United States, obviously, and the government has been trying to do that, even if they don't agree with the style or substance of Trump. But at the same time it's very clear that Canada is much closer on many positions in various policy fields to the Europeans than to the Americans at the moment, so I think the relationship between Canada and the EU will remain strong. I wouldn't over-interpret Merkel's comments as a serious rift right now between Europe and the U.S. — I think that would be a little exaggerated — but if something like this were to develop, Canada might potentially play a bridge-building role.  

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.