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Germany's Election Seen as Wider Verdict on Unpopular U.S. President

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Germany’s federal election at the end of September, in which Chancellor Angela Merkel won a historic fourth term, became a larger contest about Germany’s role in the world, the enduring appeal of populism and Berlin’s relations with Washington in an era of Donald Trump. In addition to the usual campaigning, this year’s electoral debate was marked by the political noise and unprecedented uncertainty generated by President Trump and his administration, especially regarding the transatlantic relationship.

a3.germany.elections.merkel.epp.storyMerkel extended her reign as Europe’s longest-serving leader and her ruling center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) won nearly 33 percent of the vote. Still, it was the CDU’s worst showing in 70 years and the far-right nationalist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) won 13 percent of the vote, giving it a seat in parliament for the first time and making it a significant third player in German politics. Meanwhile, CDU’s main rival, the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) also experienced a historic loss and said it will now become an opposition force, leaving the grand coalition it had been a part of with Merkel before the election. That will put Merkel in the difficult position of cobbling together a new working coalition that could take months.

On the one hand, the vote was a rebuke of Trump in the sense that Germans — bolstered by low unemployment and a fast-growing economy — wanted stability and widely saw Merkel as the steady-handed antithesis to the unpredictable U.S. president. At the same time, Merkel’s decision to open Germany to nearly 1 million refugees and migrants in 2015, many from war-torn Muslim nations, sparked a backlash that buoyed the fortunes of AfD and its anti-immigrant platform, which has echoes of Trump’s nationalist, anti-establishment agenda.

But can one speak of a palpable Trump effect on the German electoral debate? If so, what is its nature and what does it foretell about U.S.-German relations going forward? What is clear is that Trump has become a deeply unpopular political figure in Germany, where there is declining confidence in American leadership as a result. Analysts are sure to debate how much Trump’s unpopularity boosted the fortunes of Merkel or, conversely, whether the same forces that brought Trump to power influenced and fed the populist anxieties that contributed to AfD’s victory and continue to upend traditional politics on both sides of the Atlantic.

Regardless, Germany will continue to uphold transatlantic ties and cooperate with Washington where interests align, though Berlin will not hesitate to criticize U.S. policies it strongly disagrees with. How all this plays out will have a significant effect on the future of the transatlantic relationship considering Germany’s growing leadership role and position as a key U.S. ally within the European Union.

a3.germany.elections.g20.storyGerman Opinion of Trump

According to public opinion polls, the outcome of the 2016 U.S. election has had a dramatic and negative effect on German attitudes not only toward the current U.S. president — whom only 11 percent of Germans trust, according to a June 2017 Pew study — but also toward the United States in general.

Germany has the most negative view of the United States in Europe, with 62 percent of Germans holding an unfavorable opinion of America. Compare this to the 64 percent of Germans who held positive views of the United States at the beginning of former President Barack Obama’s administration and to the 60 percent favorability among Germans early in the George W. Bush years. President Trump has, in a short time, inverted these numbers.

Other studies and polls underscore this negative trend. The United States now ranks lower than China and equal to Russia when asked whom Germans consider a trustworthy partner. In fact, a staggering 74 percent of Germans do not think the United States is reliable any more, according to a June 2017 poll by the German political research institute Infratest dimap. Meanwhile, a Forsa survey revealed that 63 percent of Germans would like German-Russian relations to be improved while only 40 percent would like to see similar efforts on behalf of the transatlantic relationship.

The German media landscape mirrors this attitude with thorough and overwhelmingly critical coverage of the U.S. president. Trump is depicted as an unpredictable threat to Europe, liberal values and world peace. No fewer than six cover pages of the widely read weekly magazine Der Spiegel have featured Trump in this light so far this year. Meanwhile, German public television has featured talk shows where politicians and experts ponder over questions like, “How Dangerous Is Trump for the World?” and “Trump, Putin, Erdogan — Are They Destroying the World?” Trump’s comments about the protests in Charlottesville, Va., have received particularly strong condemnation in the German debate.

Looking at these numbers and trends, one may be reminded of previous times where the United States was similarly unpopular among Germans and political pundits asked whether the end of the transatlantic bond was nigh. One may also consider the underlying but persistent affinity for anti-Americanism in certain segments of German society that has a tendency to flare up with disagreements, such as the Iraq War under George W. Bush and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) controversy and the National Security Agency scandal under Obama.

a3.germany.elections.merkel.trump.storyHowever, with President Trump in office, two things have changed. First, it seems that Germans are no longer simply criticizing specific issues within the transatlantic relationship. Now, they question Germany’s relationship with the United States altogether because Trump is regarded as a potential danger to the wider liberal democratic order. German foreign policy heavyweights like former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and former Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger have warned about the need to avoid falling into patterns of anti-Americanism and the importance of distinguishing between the U.S. leadership and the rest of the country, but these efforts do not seem to be bearing much fruit. Second, politicians on both sides of the aisle are reacting to this America skepticism and adjusting both their rhetoric and policy proposals accordingly.

Trump’s Influence on German Politics

In terms of rhetoric, the most notable Trump effect on the German political debate was Merkel’s much-cited beer hall speech in Bavaria in May 2017. Here, the traditionally low-key chancellor declared that the “times in which we can fully count on others are to a certain extent over” and called for Europe to “take our fate into our own hands.”

However, it is important to note that this was not the first time Merkel had distanced herself from the United States under Trump. She did so back in January 2017, calling for a stronger Europe after President Trump referred to NATO as “obsolete.” With the Bavaria speech, Merkel primarily aimed to portray herself as vigorously pro-European and in favor of strategically strengthening the EU — both a core component of her ruling CDU and a popular position among German voters, especially following the victory of President Emmanuel Macron in the French elections. Merkel’s remarks did not signal a desire to quit the transatlantic relationship, given her other comments about the need to continue working with the United States and her ongoing efforts to engage with Trump’s administration.

Nevertheless, Merkel’s Bavarian moment was certainly the first time she felt the need to be clear and outspoken on the current lack of transatlantic trust and get more in sync with the country’s increasingly anti-American electorate. In German politics, this is big news, especially considering that the chancellor’s conservative party traditionally holds the most U.S.-friendly attitudes among all German parties.

Across the political aisle, Merkel’s main rival for the chancellery and SPD frontrunner, Martin Schulz, took on a much harsher and more outspoken stance against Trump and his administration. Schulz repeatedly criticized Trump’s “erratic political style,” compared him to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and accused him of political blackmail.

Following Schulz’s example, it has become fashionable within the SPD — by tradition less pro-American than its main rival, the CDU — to question Washington’s transatlantic initiatives and intentions. Since the beginning of this campaign, the Social Democrats have broken with Germany’s pledge to bring Berlin’s defense spending up from its current 1.22 percent of GDP toward NATO’s required 2 percent — something the party originally agreed to in 2014. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel (of the SPD) called the 2 percent goal “completely unrealistic” and said Germany’s federal election will prove to be a “referendum on whether Germany remains a peaceful power or joins Trump’s warfare madness.” Additionally, in response to new U.S. sanctions against Russia, German Economy Minister Brigitte Zypries (also of the SPD) urged the EU to consider countermeasures against the United States. While the new sanctions are widely unpopular both across German party lines and with the German public, it is rare for a sitting German politician to openly threaten retaliation against the United States.

While the rising anti-Americanism in Germany under Trump is striking, it did not translate into a bump for the SPD, which only received about 20 percent of the vote, a postwar low.

a3.germany.elections.merkel.parliament.storyStaying on the Atlanticist Course

With both political elites and broader German public sentiment having become markedly more critical of the United States under Trump, what effect, if any, will this have on Berlin’s approach toward Washington after the election?

The answer will, of course, depend partially on the outcome of the election. If the SPD keeps its promise and refuses to enter into a grand coalition with the CDU, Merkel will have difficulties assembling a working coalition. It is too early to say whether the vote will result in a three-way coalition between the conservatives, the pro-business Free Democratic Party and the left-leaning Green Party, although such partners have vastly different political ideologies, which will make governing more challenging. Merkel will also need to address the fears over unfettered immigration, globalization, capitalism and EU elites that helped propel the right-wing AfD to power.

Yet regardless of which coalition is eventually formed, Berlin will remain committed to the transatlantic partnership going forward, despite Trump’s overwhelming unpopularity in Germany. The recent meeting between German Foreign Minister Gabriel and his U.S. counterpart Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Washington, in which Gabriel struck a more diplomatic tone, underscores this argument. There is no foreseeable scenario in which the next German government would turn away from engaging with Washington as its top partner outside of Europe.

Most mainstream German political leaders remain keenly aware of the essential role the United States has played in supporting modern-day Germany and the European project to date. They also appreciate the vital part that the United States plays in upholding the liberal international order. Based on this, it is still widely accepted that there is no real alternative to engagement with the U.S. president despite strong disagreement with many of Trump’s policies and antics.

If anything, German officials are likely to be even more proactive in explaining their views to their American counterparts, and it seems probable that the German chancellor will be even more active in engaging the administration after the election, even in areas where there is disagreement. Merkel would likely take it upon herself to try to ensure that the transatlantic relationship does not reach a breaking point and that policy schisms are carefully managed. She would also be expected to use her formidable leadership standing to promote a better atmosphere between European capitals and Washington.

At the same time, Germany’s strong domestic opposition to Trump, which is likely to persist, means that being seen as too close to Trump could be a liability for the next chancellor. The mixed results of the September election have put Merkel in the odd position of, on the one hand, being mindful of the strong public sentiment against Trump and, on the other hand, listening to the concerns of voters who embraced Trump’s populist-style politics, especially in light of Germany’s upcoming regional elections (the next one is slated to take place in Lower Saxony on Oct. 15, 2017). Moreover, any attempt to convince the public to support new transatlantic initiatives could be an uphill battle. As a case in point, the TTIP trade agreement was highly controversial in Germany despite being pursued by Obama, a relatively popular American president at the time. A similar trade initiative or, for instance, a request from the White House for Germany to contribute more troops to NATO’s mission in Afghanistan could prove to be a hard sell domestically.

a3.germany.elections.reichstag.storyWorking with Trump Where Possible

While Merkel’s standing has taken a hit, the next German government will continue to engage with the Trump administration on an issue-by-issue basis. Notable areas where there is potential for fruitful collaboration include (but are not limited to) the Ukraine crisis, intelligence and counterterrorism efforts, and the broader transatlantic defense architecture under NATO.

Managing the Ukraine crisis will continue to be a key foreign policy priority for Germany. Hence, any signals that the U.S. administration might step up its own direct role and try to resolve the conflict pursuant to the Minsk agreement are welcome in Berlin, but any move by Washington to supply arms to the Ukrainian military would be met with skepticism.

Intelligence sharing for combatting terrorism is not a new issue on the U.S.-German agenda. On this front, the two countries are expected to continue and expand their cooperation, which German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière described as “excellent” in May 2017, shortly after Merkel’s Bavaria speech.

Berlin and Washington can also be expected to continue their close work on transatlantic security under NATO. Despite Trump’s initial criticism of the alliance, his failure to mention Article 5 during remarks at the new NATO headquarters in May and his strong words about Germany’s lack of defense contributions, Germany is emerging as one of Washington’s key European defense policy partners.

The strong desire from Washington for Germany to step up its defense spending has been noted by German officials — even before Trump took office. Over the past several years, Merkel has continuously acknowledged the need for Germany to meet the 2 percent spending target, albeit gradually.

Remaining Vocal About Disagreements

Germany has not been afraid of voicing its disagreements with Washington in the past. Notable examples include the Iraq War in 2003 and the NSA spying scandal in 2013. What is different from these past clashes is that under Trump, Berlin and Washington are now at loggerheads over a whole host of issues. On matters that Germany feels particularly strongly about, such as global trade, climate change, the Iran nuclear agreement and U.S. sanctions against European energy companies, the next German government can be expected to continue not holding back criticism against the Trump administration.

On trade, the administration’s protectionist ambitions have Germany concerned. While the White House seems to have moved away from the controversial border adjustment tax idea, the issue of Germany’s bilateral trade surplus means that trade is likely to continue to be a sticking point in the U.S.-German relationship, especially given the importance Trump attaches to the issue. Moreover, the administration’s threat to impose new steel sanctions alarms Berlin because it could hit European companies and undermine the World Trade Organization and, consequently, the broader multilateral trading order. Given the strong German consensus on the importance of free and open global trade, one should therefore expect the chancellor to not hold back when it comes to criticizing the United States on this matter. At the same time, Berlin will continue to prod the administration to moderate its protectionist instincts, including efforts to engage the United States in the G7 and G20. While the TTIP negotiations are moribund for now, it is possible that the issue of transatlantic trade could return to the agenda in some fashion during the next four years.

On climate change, Trump’s announcement of the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement sent shockwaves through Berlin. In response, Germany — together with France and Italy — has already rejected Trump’s proposal to negotiate a less ambitious version of the deal. Instead, Berlin has started engaging directly with U.S. states and local authorities, as well as with the American private sector and nongovernmental organizations. Bypassing the White House when such disagreements occur is likely to become more common in the next four years.

As for the Iran nuclear agreement, it is important to note that, across party lines, Germany regards the deal as one of the biggest victories of diplomacy in recent years. For Berlin, it not only proved the benefits of a nonmilitary approach, but also reopened the door for expanding economic ties between Berlin and Tehran. Trump, on the other side, described it as one of the “the worst deals ever.” His decision on whether to stick to the current agreement will be made after the 90-day White House review period ends in mid-October. If he does not uphold the deal, Berlin can be expected to strongly voice its disagreement. While this would not be the first time Germany and the United States would be at odds over Iran, it would certainly be regarded in Berlin as yet another serious crack in American reliability.

a3.germany.elections.schulz.storyOn the issue of U.S. extraterritorial sanctions against Russia, Berlin has strongly criticized the bipartisan congressional bill that Trump signed. Germany is concerned the bill seeks to target European energy companies working on projects that involve Russia. In particular, there are concerns that the bill will target the Russian energy firm Gazprom’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline over the Baltic Sea, which Germany supports. While the project is more popular among SPD leaders, with former SPD politician and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder serving as board chairman of Nord Stream AG, even Merkel has been careful not to oppose it. As a result, energy policy is likely to represent an area where the United States and Germany will butt heads.

Germany’s Efforts to Strengthen Europe

As a kind of partial insurance policy against the growing uncertainty and disruption surrounding U.S. foreign policy under Trump, one can anticipate that the German chancellor will likely devote significant attention to shoring up the European project. The EU serves as Berlin’s primary vehicle for exerting global leadership. Germany will likely intensify its efforts to strengthen and reform fiscal, monetary and foreign policy within the EU framework. Special attention will be paid to tapping into the positive momentum generated by the election of Macron in France for strengthening the Franco-German partnership and exploring potential eurozone reforms.

This will likely manifest itself in a range of policy areas. Berlin will push the EU to play a greater leadership role in the absence of the United States on global trade and climate change. Germany also will continue to bolster European defense capabilities. However, it would be a mistake to expect a muscular German foreign policy. Germany and Europe will stay dependent on the United States and NATO for the foreseeable future, and the German public is likely to remain incredibly wary of any domestic German military initiative. Berlin defines itself and its strength primarily through the EU, speaking of its responsibilities and contributions in relation to the EU but rarely about German leadership. For that very reason, however, Berlin will likely continue to promote and support collaborative European defense initiatives beyond the NATO framework, such as the European Defense Fund or the option of permanent structured cooperation (PESCO), not to substitute but to complement the transatlantic alliance.

The drawback to Germany’s preference for a multilateral approach is that EU reform is a long process and one should not expect any dramatic changes, such as altering the EU treaty, in the short term. Moreover, enthusiasm for the European project has clearly waned among those who supported AfD and in other EU nations where populist parties have made significant inroads.

U.S.-German Relations in an Age of Trump

The arrival of Donald Trump in the White House has been like a series of lightning bolts across European debates and thinking. However, its actual effect on politics and foreign policy is muddled and, in some cases, modest. In Germany’s domestic debate, anti-American sentiment is rising and the traditional role of the United States is increasingly questioned, but there was no apparent Trump effect in derailing Merkel’s re-election.

Still, Trump-inspired populism and nationalism clearly has an enduring appeal in Europe and Germany. Moreover, the list of disagreements between Germany and the United States has grown, and Trump is undeniably affecting how Germany is going to position itself toward its partner across the Atlantic in the next couple of years. After the election in September, Merkel, now in office for 12 years, will have increased confidence to speak out against Washington in times of disagreement, while bolstering engagement efforts where possible, with an eye toward keeping the rocky aspects of the transatlantic relationship at bay and strengthening the EU’s international voice. Merkel will have her work cut out for her and will have to tread carefully for this dual strategy to pan out.


About the Author

Erik Brattberg is director of the Europe Program and a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. Viola Meyerweissflog, who contributed to this article, is a research assistant in the Europe Program. This article originally appeared Aug. 31, 2017, online at carnegieendowment.org and is reprinted with permission from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. It was updated on Sept. 24 to reflect the outcome of the election results.

Last Edited on October 2, 2017