When trying to answer the question as to who has the say in the European Union, it’s easy to get confused. The European Council, the European Commission, the member states: Even those who know the EU well don’t often know who has the last word in Brussels disputes. The confusion isn’t new. Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger famously wondered: “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?”
Today, a new president is moving into the White House and one thing is already clear: Telephone calls between Washington and Brussels won’t get any easier. “I spoke to the head of the European Union, very fine gentleman called me up,” Donald Trump said this week in a joint interview with the German tabloid Bild and the Times of London. When asked if it was Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, Trump responded: “Yes, ah, to congratulate me on what happened with respect to the election.”
Except, the fine gentleman Mr. Juncker wasn’t the fine gentleman Mr. Juncker. It was Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, the powerful body representing the leaders of the EU member states. A former Polish prime minister, Tusk chatted with the future U.S. president for about 10 minutes, but Trump was apparently able to remember neither his name nor his arguments. The European Union, he said in the interview, is “basically a vehicle for Germany,” adding that “I believe others will leave,” as Britain plans to do.
For more than 60 years, the U.S. has promoted European unity. The country introduced the Marshall Plan, it supported the single European market and backed Europe’s eastward expansion following the collapse of the Iron Curtain. But now, a man is entering the White House who is counting on the disintegration of the EU. He would rather negotiate with each country individually, believing that will be more beneficial for America.
A real estate magnate is now the most powerful man in the world and it looks as though he plans to run his administration as though the U.S. were a vast real estate conglomerate. He is after lucrative deals, and those who can’t keep up in the competition for the most profitable contracts will be left behind.
Concepts like human rights and the protection of minorities are not part of his vocabulary. His only goal is America’s profitability, particularly in global trade, which he sees as a brutal fight for survival and not, as had been normal for his Republican Party, as a peaceful exchange with benefits for both sides. The concept of “win-win” is not one his team adheres to.
The situation could hardly be worse for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Soon, the EU will be forced to make do without the United Kingdom, the bloc’s second-largest economy; right-wing populists are on the advance in Europe; and now Trump is at the helm in the U.S., a man who said in his interview this week that the German chancellor had “made a catastrophic mistake.” It would be difficult to formulate a challenge more directly than that.
Can Merkel’s Europe now hold together? Can she become a worthy adversary to Trump in the approaching conflicts over trade regulations, international agreements and the liberal legal and economic order that has been so important to the United States for the last six decades?
That which had seemed inconceivable just a short time ago now appears to be a foregone conclusion: A new era is beginning, one in which the certainties that have held true for decades are suddenly no longer valued. They are suddenly vulnerable.
For the most part, that is because the 45th president of the United States of America is simply not interested in the world order that has developed since 1945. He is just as disinterested in the trans-Atlantic partnership and the long-cultivated alliances with Western allies.
An Epochal Shift
For Trump, there is no such thing as friendships and alliances. He is not focused on morals; he is not concerned with dividing the world into good and evil; he does not see the use in unselfishly providing protection to allies, as the U.S. has done for decades with it soldiers stationed in Europe.
“America first” is his slogan, one which helped him win the election. It is the same promise British Prime Minister Theresa May has made to her voters: “Britain first.” And Marine Le Pen, head of the French right-wing populist party Front National, is using a similar slogan in that country’s ongoing presidential election campaign: “La France d’abord.” What, though, will the world look like when there are no longer any grand, binding values and goals? A world in which each country is only looking out for itself?
Most dangerous, it seems, is Donald Trump’s deep ignorance of the Western community of values that has developed since World War II. History is not something that concerns him. As such, he feels no obligation to it. NATO? Obsolete. The World Trade Organization? “A disaster.”
The new president feels absolutely no sentimentality when it comes to the alliances that arose out of the rubble of World War II. Like no other president before him, he is prepared to call them into question and even, apparently, to bring them to an end. Plus, Trump has no taboos. On the contrary: He loves to break them, he loves to provoke.´
The result is that Europe finds itself on the eve of an epochal shift of the kind it hasn’t seen since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. Is this the end of the West as we know it, as former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer warned a month ago? U.S. historian Anne Applebaum told SPIEGEL in an interview this week that she expects a historical change of course. “The world order that we’ve known since the end of the Cold War has been radically transformed,” she says.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea was the first indication that the global order that we had enjoyed for 25 years was under threat — and the world simply stood by and watched. Apart from a couple of sanctions, U.S. President Barack Obama left the problem to the Europeans. Even then, America was no longer interested in overseas autocrats like Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin.
Europe’s Loss, Russia’s and China’s Gain
The new president will likely continue the process that began under his predecessor: America’s withdrawal from global politics. Just that the incoming president is expected to formulate that withdrawal more clearly than Obama did. Trump has pledged to carry out a relentless fight against Islamic State, but otherwise he is an avowed isolationist, intending to stay out of other global conflicts.
In the fight against terrorism, the new president would seem to be leaning toward a close alliance with Russia. A weak, perhaps disintegrating Europe wedged in between the two great powers U.S.A. and Russia, whose presidents get along better than most of their predecessors: For Europe, such a scenario would be the largest foreign and security policy challenge since World War II. For the last 70 years, Europe could depend on having America at its side. Now, this is no longer a certainty.
The power vacuum that America’s withdrawal is creating is particularly welcome to two countries: China and Russia. For the leadership in Beijing, the collapse of the old world order is akin to an act of God: America, China’s last rival on its path to becoming a superpower, is pulling back. Never before have the prospects been as good for the realization of the “Chinese Dream,” which Xi Jinping has made the slogan of his presidency.
Xi spoke of his global vision this week in Davos, at the annual gathering of the world’s economic and financial elite. The rules of international cooperation, he said, must be changed. Beijing isn’t happy with Western dominance of global organizations such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. China, with its population of 1.3 billion and significant economic strength, sees itself as an alternative. Beijing, Xi said, is prepared to take on more responsibility: “History is created by the brave.”
Are we headed for a world in which China — an authoritarian state in which the Communist Party leadership has a firm grip over the economy, controls the media and censors the internet — dominates the new global order? Will the 21st century see the realization of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” or George Orwell’s “1984,” the most dystopian visions of the 20th century?
Might Makes Right
For the moment, that seems farfetched. But from Moscow’s perspective, new commonalities with the U.S. are emerging. Even before his inauguration, Donald Trump presented the Russian leadership with a significant gift: He branded NATO obsolete and called into question the alliance’s principle of collective defense. Things could hardly be going better for Moscow. Maintaining control over Russia’s immediate vicinity is one of the country’s core interests while NATO’s eastward expansion is seen as a traumatic infringement of that claim. Putin has finally found an ally, in Washington of all places, in his battle against a world order that he has long attacked as being unipolar and unjust. Like Trump, Putin would like a world free of the West’s constant moralizing, a world in which might makes right.
The two leaders are also bound by their skepticism of the EU. But there is one significant difference: In contrast to Trump, Moscow would like to keep the United Nations as a foundation of global order. UN headquarters in New York is one of the few places where Russia, thanks to its permanent Security Council seat and accompanying veto, can negotiate at eye level with the West and block important decisions, as it did most recently in the Syrian conflict. Everything else can more or less be negotiated with Donald Trump, from Russia’s interests in Crimea to America’s interests in Syria.
Still, Russia has no illusions: Trump will not determine the direction of U.S. foreign policy on his own. He requires Congressional approval. And Putin’s experience with Trump’s two predecessors, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, have shown him that initial amicability can soon turn frosty.
As such, the world is left trying to figure out how power will be divvied up in the Trump administration. Will he leave foreign policy to the diplomatic establishment of the Republican Party? Will he be able to count on Congressional support?
A Foreign World
In an effort to find out, emissaries from the government in Berlin began trying to establish initial contacts with the Trump team not long ago. It was like a trip to a foreign world.
Peter Wittig is one of Germany’s most experienced diplomats, having served in the country’s Foreign Ministry for the last 35 years. He has served as Germany’s ambassador in Lebanon and Cyprus and has sat down across from myriad negotiating partners. But the diplomat has seldom experienced the kind of overblown self-confidence that he has seen in recent months.
He has held several meetings with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, both before and after the election. At their first encounter in spring 2015, it was the Germans who wanted to know more about Trump’s plans, with a friendly and reserved Kushner taking careful notes.
But the more often the two met, the more demanding Kushner became, say Berlin diplomatic sources who have read Wittig’s meeting reports. The last meeting in New York in December culminated in Kushner’s curt question: “What can you do for us?”
Government officials in Berlin speak of an “astounding mixture of arrogance and naiveté” when discussing the conversations they have had with counterparts in the incoming administration. Shortly before Christmas, Merkel’s foreign policy adviser Christoph Heusgen traveled to the U.S. for talks with Michael Flynn, tapped by Trump as national security adviser. Around one year ago, Flynn was a paid speaker at an anniversary party for RT, the Russian propaganda broadcaster.
Heusgen’s first impression of Flynn was sobering. At a conference of conservative parliamentarians in Berlin on Wednesday, Heusgen said that some members of the incoming administration “don’t have an exhaustive understanding” regarding “certain problems facing the EU and their backgrounds.” In other words: The new president’s team doesn’t have a clue about Europe.
Berlin diplomats still hope that the level-headed foreign policy espoused by cabinet appointees such as future defense secretary James Mattis and future secretary of state Rex Tillerson will hold sway. But nobody thinks that Trump will transform into a passionate defender of the Western alliance. In the campaign, the new U.S. president claimed that he was a “fan” of NATO. But at the same time, he warned Germany that European alliance members would have to increase their financial contributions. At Davos this week, Trump adviser Anthony Scaramucci said that the postwar world order was no longer suitable for the challenges of the 21st century.
America’s Greatest Adversaries: Japan and West Germany
That is particularly true when it comes to trade policy, which Trump has for decades seen as a conspiracy against America. For the past several weeks, a March 1990 issue of Playboy magazine has been making the rounds in Merkel’s Chancellery. The cover shows a long-haired brunette covered in a black tuxedo jacket next to a slim 40-something: Donald Trump. Inside is a long interview with Trump, in which he talks about what he sees as America’s most dangerous adversaries. He doesn’t mention Russia or Red China, but Japan and West Germany, countries that he said had robbed the U.S. of its self-esteem. “Their products are better because they have so much subsidy,” he said, while America is ensuring that those countries aren’t “wiped off the face of the earth in about 15 minutes.” He concludes his point by saying: “Our ‘allies’ are making billions screwing us.”
Merkel’s staff is convinced that his views haven’t changed. Trump’s newly formed National Trade Council is to be led by economist Peter Navarro, an avowed opponent of Beijing’s “stranglehold” — which he illustrated in his documentary film “Death by China” with an animation of a Chinese knife being stabbed into a map of the United States. Robert Lighthizer, Trump’s designated trade representative, has long been known in Washington circles as a passionate protectionist who misses no opportunity to insist that World Trade Organization rules are “not religious obligations.”
Trump adviser Kushner is likewise consumed by the issue of imports to the U.S. and the consequences for American jobs. In a meeting with the German emissary Wittig, he said that the Trump team looked at statistics showing which countries export more to the U.S. than they import. In first place is China, followed by Japan and then Germany. Kushner’s message was clear: The situation must change.
Merkel’s staff has become certain that conflicts with the new U.S. administration will primarily be focused on two policy areas: foreign trade and relations with Russia. The decisive question is: Can Merkel rely on European backing?
It has been conceived as a huge birthday celebration this March in Rome, replete with an anniversary summit and a celebratory statement. The EU intends to celebrate the 60thanniversary of its founding treaties with the pathos we have come to expect from the bloc. But the ceremony is also seen as a message to Trump.
After the in-coming president made clear this week that he believes the EU has outlived its usefulness, it wasn’t long before European leaders closed ranks. Europe must “stand together,” intoned German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Europe, French President François Hollande groused earlier this week, “does not need outside advice to tell it what to do.” Meanwhile, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker admonished Trump not to abandon the trans-Atlantic alliance. “Together, we need to tackle climate change and migration together, fight terrorism with united forces and conquer globalization and its social consequences,” he said. But he expects “that it will take a few months until the American president discovers the abundant finer points of Europe.”
There are many, though, who believe that the toasts given in Rome this March could be among the last ones for the EU. The number of skeptics has grown even larger since it became clear that Trump would be moving into the White House.
The incoming U.S. president has always viewed the EU as an alliance aimed at weakening America’s economy. Now he sees an opportunity to get rid of an unwanted competitor. Officials in Brussels are concerned that one of Trump’s foreign policy goals may be that of dividing the EU — in areas like the environment and energy policy, for example, but particularly in its relationship with Russia.
If Trump sticks with his positions, it is the chancellor’s view that Europe could be facing a great threat. Putin could even see himself emboldened to the point he might try to destabilize the Baltic states, without fear of any resistance from the Americans. “Trump’s messages about NATO could lead to a situation in which Putin says to himself, ‘Let’s give it a shot!'” warns Elmar Brok, a confidant of Merkel’s. Brok is also a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the European Parliament.
Moscow is the first trump card Trump has at his disposal to place Brussels under pressure. The second is London. Barack Obama tried to make it clear to the British that they would be placed at the back of the line when it came to any free trade agreement with the United States if they voted in favor of Brexit. Trump, however, has said he wants to expedite negotiations of a trade treaty with Britain.
‘Too Much Time with Nigel Farage’
People in Brussels are plenty familiar with the tones being struck by the new U.S. president, but they are used to hearing them from a much different person. “Trump has spent too much time drinking coffee with Nigel Farage,” says Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a foreign policy expert with the business-friendly Free Democratic Party in the European Parliament. Farage, the former leader of UKIP, the party that gave birth to the Brexit movement, accompanied Trump at times during the presidential election campaign and the president-elect has repeatedly expressed his admiration for the British politician (“he’s a great guy, very good guy, very supportive. He was one of the earliest people that said Trump was gonna win.”).
Targeting Europe’s Economy
The campaign against Brussels being waged by the incoming U.S. president is not just focused on politics. Trump’s actual target is Europe’s economy. “I’d throw a tax on every Mercedes-Benz rolling into this country and on all Japanese products,” he told Playboy magazine 25 years ago. “And we’d have wonderful allies again.”
Kerber could have dedicated his speech to successes in the German economy, about record exports, full order books or the high level of employment. But instead he bleakly warned of “changing times in international economic policies.” Kerber didn’t mention anybody by name, but everyone knew who he was referring to: Trump and all the anti-globalization politicians who, with their “nationalist industrial policies,” are threatening to trigger a trade war between the U.S. and China. If that were to happen, “considerable declines in economic value creation and employment within a very short period of time” could be expected, particularly in export-driven countries like Germany. “Our prosperity is at risk,” Kerber warned, “more than at any other time in the past 60 years.”
And yet, the markets have been celebrating a Trump-fueled boom for weeks now. After all, international trade is currently in full blossom, not least between Germany and the U.S. American companies are investing more heavily than ever before in Germany, with that volume climbing by a rapid 113 percent in 2015 compared to the previous year. Some of the biggest companies in America are expanding their presences in Germany, including General Electric, Facebook and IBM. Information technology equipment supplier Cisco wants to invest a half-billion dollars in Germany.
German companies, for their part, are even more active in the U.S. German companies conduct more trade with the United States than with any other country. In 2015, the U.S. surpassed France as Germany’s biggest export market. It’s a development that has been fueled by the robust U.S. economy and a euro that has recently been relatively weak to the dollar, making German goods less expensive.
In a 2014 report, the consulting giant McKinsey found that no other national economy is as globally interconnected as Germany’s – but also that few others were as dependent on exports. In 2015, German industry exported goods valuing 1.194 trillion euros all around the world. But the country only imported 949 billion euros worth of goods.
During her tenure, Angela Merkel has seen a fair number of crises. About 10 years ago, Lehman Brothers collapsed in the US and the global economy was on the verge of collapse. Seven years later, Greek debt brought the European common currency to the brink of disintegration. Then came the refugee crisis, which threatened to cost the chancellor the support of her own party.
This year, she is once again standing for re-election, if she wins, there is reason to believe that the Trump presidency will be her greatest challenge yet. How should she deal with a man who seems unconcerned about the possibility of the EU disintegrating and who threatened the German export industry with tariffs before he even took office? How should she react when Germany’s most important ally questions decades-old relationships?
Trump is the end of the world as we know it — that much is clear. Or, as the Economist recently wrote: “Things could get much worse.”