Berlin is bracing itself for President Trump

The German government is to step up its efforts to keep Europeans together.

9 November is a historic day for Germans. In 1989 the Berlin Wall came crashing down on that day, and in 1938 pogroms across the Deutsches Reich became the starting point of the systematic persecution of European Jews. Both 1989 and 1938 are also strongly linked to German-US history, and the formative role that the US has played in shaping post-war Europe. The United States played a leading role in liberating Germany from the Nazi dictatorship, and in the aftermath of 1989, helped bring about a European order that Germany, until now, has benefitted from greatly.

As Berliners woke this morning to the news that Donald Trump had made it into the White House, there was a sense that yet another chapter is opening for Europe on this historic day. But this time, there is a feeling that it won’t be a chapter of partnership, but one of unpredictability. It is a new chapter in which the decades-old foundation of the transatlantic relationship – shared values – may be called into question.

The German political class was deeply shocked when the news came in, and Minister of Defense Ursula von der Leyen was the first representative of the federal government to express her thoughts in an early morning interview. We are now entering a political vacuum, von der Leyen said, in which there will be a struggle behind the scenes to figure out who the new points of contact in Washington are.

Von der Leyen understood that no matter the candidate the US expects more self-reliance from Germany and the EU on security matters. But she pointed out that this development is already well under way, including in a rising German defense budget. She added that also the US needed to be clear about its own future role in the alliance.

Norbert Röttgen, head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Bundestag and a member of Angela Merkel’s CDU party, commented early in the morning that for him the result was unbelievable and indeed unthinkable – “what happens now that the voice of anger (“Wut”) enters the White House”? For the first time in transatlantic relations, he argued, it was impossible to predict what US foreign policy would look like under President Trump in what is an overall insecure geopolitical situation anyway.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier delivered a longer, candid, and at times personal statement in which he reiterated the concerns that both von der Leyen and Röttgen raised: “We do not know how Trump will govern the US, many questions remain unanswered despite our efforts”. In a visibly thoughtful mood, Steinmeier stated that “Nothing will be easier, many things will become more complicated”. Yet, the foreign minister also called for Germans and Europeans to keep their sense of reason (“Vernunft”) and foster their political culture in this time. At the same time, he underlined Germany’s new role: “What we have achieved together here in Germany – economic reason combined with social responsibility – has made us a recognised partner within Europe and beyond. And we can stand confidently to this.” He also pointed out that there were countless interpersonal and political ties between Germany and the United States that must be maintained and cultivated.

Angela Merkel made her own statement some hours later at noon. Her message was distinctly more sober and clear cut. There is no doubt that relations with the US are the most important for Germany outside of Europe, and are built on common values: democracy, freedom, respect for the rule of law and human dignity, regardless of origin, colour of skin, religion, sexual orientation or political views. “On the basis of these values I offer the future President Trump strong cooperation”. Full stop. This was mostly a clear message to German voters who have never found cooperation with the US easy, in particular on fundamental questions such as the use of military force and data protection. If President Trump continues to run roughshod over fundamental values, as he suggested he might in his campaign, the German Chancellor will be left with little room for engagement, despite strong German interest in maintaining strong relations.

To fully understand and interpret the reaction in Berlin one has to go back to 24 June 2016, the morning that the city woke to the news of Brexit. The UK leaving the Union brought the spectre of a crumbling EU to Germany. Less than six months later, the second pillar of Germany’s foundations in the West, and of its foreign policy at large, has been put into question. One cannot underestimate how deeply troubling these developments are for Germany’s political elites.

Having said that, initial reactions suggest that Berlin is willing to continue and boost its efforts to lead the way for a Europe with many challenges on the horizon. Brexit led Berlin to step up its efforts to keep Europeans together, and these attempts will gain a new urgency following the US vote. What remains implicit at this time is that the path ahead might have to be walked without the US at its side, if only temporarily.

It is not just the spectre of a crumbling EU that looms large in the German mindset, but Germany facing its own election campaign. The contest will pick up speed around the same time that Donald Trump will begin to practice foreign policy in the spring of 2017. If Trump does indeed follow through on his policy pledges – on NATO, Russia, climate change and the UN, to name a few areas of deep concern for Berlin – the question of European security, and Germany’s role in it, will no doubt come to the fore in the federal election campaign. Germany is bracing itself. 2017 will not only a year of unpredictability for German and European relations with the US, but one in which the future of Europe and the West will have to be debated – especially among Germans in election mode.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow

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