Even before last week’s NATO and G7 summits in Europe, Angela Merkel knew that Donald Trump would not have kind words for the Germans.
Having already suffered the indignity of having him refuse to shake her hand during her state visit to Washington - possibly as revenge for her frosty response to his election - Merkel could have expected that Trump’s obsession with the German trade surplus and lack of military spending would again bring hostility during their second meeting. It did.
“The Germans are bad, very bad,” Trump told European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker during a visit to the EU institutions, according to Der Spiegel. “See the millions of cars they are selling in the US? Terrible. We will stop this.”
The optics might have been terrible for Merkel. While Trump insults her nation, she must smile and shake his hand at the NATO summit. The German front pages might have featured a humiliated Merkel standing next to a gloating, strutting US president. But they didn’t.
Instead, the papers featured photos of Merkel with Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama. While Trump was disparaging the Germans in Brussels on Thursday morning, Obama was speaking with Merkel at a religious event in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. It was the headline event at ‘Kirchentag’ a yearly celebration of Lutheranism which has been called the “Protestant Woodstock”. The event has particular significance this year, as Germany celebrates the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 theses, which launched the Protestant Reformation.
That Merkel invited Obama to appear in Berlin on this day was no accident. Merkel is running for re-election in September, and she has been concerned that her rival, Social Democrat Martin Schulz, has been increasingly projecting himself not only as the ‘Obama of Germany’, but also as the anti-Trump. It worked wonders after his candidacy was first announced, and he received a huge boost of ‘Schulz-mania’. That boost has since subsided, and Schulz will be looking for new ways to project himself as the chancellor who will be tougher on Trump.
As sitting chancellor of a country that is militarily dependent on the United States, Merkel is limited in what she can say about the US President. Schulz is under no such restrictions as a candidate. Over the next four months, this dynamic is going to become increasingly problematic for Merkel. In Europe in 2017, being anti-Trump is a vote winner. But how can a sitting chancellor of Germany project herself as the enemy of the US president?
Merkel saw one opportunity to do so this week - associating herself with Trump’s opponent. Obama’s joint appearance with Merkel was a tacit endorsement, and it also overpowered any problematic photos of Merkel and Trump together in Brussels later in the day.
Macron’s death grip
The degree to which the election of Trump has spooked Europeans was evident in last month’s French election. Far-right leader Marine Le Pen made the mistake of associating herself with Trump too freely and too early. As increasing chaos and ineptitude engulfed Trump’s White House, French voters began to think of the consequences of their vote in a different way. Le Pen, who was always expected to make it into the second round of voting, ended up performing much worse than expected on election day.
Macron gladly cast himself as the anti-Trump during the French election, attacking the US president in extraordinary ways. He has continued doing so since becoming French president, something that was on display in some extraordinary body language in Brussels. Trump is known for trying to symbolically overpower his opponents with a firm handshake. Macron, knowing this, went in for the kill for the first handshake between the two men. Reporters at the scene described a handshake so fierce that they could see “knuckles whitening and faces tightening”, before Trump was forced to yield to Macron.
Then later in the day when the two met again at NATO, Macron pointedly walked toward Trump before suddenly diverting to Angela Merkel to greet her before the US President. He shook hands and exchanged pleasantries with fellow European leaders, leaving Trump waiting and visibly annoyed. Finally Macron turned to Trump, his smile fading. Trump tried to regain control of the situation by seemingly trying to pull Macron’s arm out of its socket. Macron two, Trump zero.
Macron has his own election coming up in two weeks’ time - the French legislative elections which could make or break his presidency. He needs to pull off an incredible feat - having his brand-new En Marche party win a majority of seats in the legislature so that he can pursue his agenda. If he does not get a governing majority in the parliament (which could also happen in a coalition) his presidency would be hobbled before it even begins.
Macron knows that the image of him standing up to Trump will be received jubilantly back home, particularly after French people felt humiliated by the previous president Francois Hollande’s pigmy-like presence on the international stage.
Merkel’s G20 balancing act
Merkel will perhaps have been watching these scenes with envy, wishing that the German chancellor could behave in such an aggressive manner toward the US President. She knows that she cannot, and that to do so could put her country at grave risk economically and perhaps even militarily. Trump seems to be itching for a trade war with Germany, and Merkel does not want to provoke him.
At the same time, for the purposes of the election Merkel needs more symbolic gestures of ‘Trump resistance’. In truth, the handshake snub earlier this year was a political gift to her at home. She needs more optics like this one, but she will probably want to avoid being seen with Trump at all over the next four months.
If only she could. Trump will come to Europe again in July to attend the G20 summit in Hamburg, hosted by Germany. The visit could be a political nightmare for Merkel. She must play the polite host, but at the same time she cannot be seen by voters as being weak against Trump. Schulz will move quickly to take advantage of that.
Speaking on Friday at a full cathedral in Berlin, Schulz was sure to make maximum political hay of Trumps comments about Germans the day before. Appearing to defend his opponent, he said it was not right for a US president to behave like an autocratic ruler and treat the chancellor in "such a humiliating manner.” Of course, this was not a gesture of solidarity with Merkel but rather a move to paint her as having been humiliated, rather than Germany as a whole having been humiliated. It was a gesture of pity, describing a chancellor who was weak.
Merkel knows she cannot fall into this trap in Hamburg. But she also knows Schulz has the upper hand in the battle to become Germany’s anti-Trump.