Merkel finds perfect tag team partner in Macron to defend Europe's future

The wrestlers were U.S. President Donald Trump and France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron. The Europeans said their man —younger, fitter — won.

German chancellor drops verbal piledriver on relations with Trump, Putin

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel pose for a group photo with NATO leaders. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

It began with a handshake in Brussels that seemed to be arm-wrestling in disguise.

The wrestlers were U.S. President Donald Trump and France's new president, Emmanuel Macron.  The Europeans said their man —younger, fitter — won.

Then, in round two, Trump retaliated with a harsh speech denouncing as malingerers 23 of NATO's 28 members.  They weren't paying their dues — 2 per cent of Gross Domestic Product in defence spending — and were therefore shortchanging the U.S.

On to Sicily where the Europeans and Canada mounted a power play against Trump at the G7 meeting, but he stonewalled them, refusing to endorse the climate accord signed in Paris in December 2015.

On Sunday, Europe's most powerful politician drew her conclusions, and announced them in a beer tent at a political rally in Bavaria, Germany. 

'We must fight for our future'

German chancellor Angela Merkel said, "the era in which we could fully rely on others is over to some extent."

Rather bland, you might say.  But those words, coming from the reserved chancellor, are the equivalent of the deployment of a battlefield nuclear weapon.

"We have to know," she went on, "that we must fight for our future on our own, for our destiny as Europeans."

Her target understood, and Donald Trump responded with a furious Twitter counter-attack.  "We have a MASSIVE trade deficit with Germany, plus they pay FAR LESS than they should on NATO & military. Very bad for U.S. This will change."

A couple of things here.  First, Merkel is running for re-election for a fourth term as German chancellor. The elections are in September. And she understands that a shot across Trump's bows goes down well with electorates around Europe.

German chancellor Angela Merkel has called on Europeans to control their own destiny in the isolationist era of Trump. (The Associated Press)

Far-right politicians learned this in recent elections in the Netherlands and France. Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen crowed when Trump won in November, and thought their day was coming too. 

Instead their poll numbers sank from early highs as Europeans watched Trump's first weeks in office.

In Germany, Trump-bashing has become good for political business. Opposition politicians, eager to outdo Merkel, indulged in far harsher language.

Martin Schulz is Germany's social-democratic opposition leader. He warned Trump against what he called "political blackmail," and then ripped into him.

"The new U.S. president doesn't stand for international cooperation but for isolationism and the rule of the strongest."

Second, Trump does have a point, at least on German military spending. By 2015 spending had sunk to less than 1.2 per cent of GDP.  The Obama administration was just as annoyed but preferred quiet pressure. 

Since 2015 the Germans have increased military spending by $3 billion and will increase it by another $3 billion by 2020. However, as a percentage of GDP, the spending will still be below 1.3 per cent. 

Trade is another matter, as Canadians have already discovered. Trump's view is that trade is fine, just as long as the U.S. comes out ahead.

Britain's Brexit poses quandary

Now note something else in Merkel's comments. She pointedly mentioned not only the U.S. but also Britain as friends now going their separate ways from Europe.

Trump's quasi-isolationism and Britain's Brexit, she implied, should be used as impetus to reinforce the European Union.

In that she will have a more-than-willing partner in the arm-wrestling French president Macron. Immediately after taking office two weeks ago, Macron flew to Berlin to re-cement the Franco-German axis.

It was that axis that created the European Common Market of six states 60 years ago. Now with the British, perennial foot-draggers on European integration, leaving in a huff, Macron has plans to reinforce the EU.

He particularly wants to build up the Euro zone, composed of 19 European states using the Euro as their common currency. He now wants them to adopt a common Euro budget and put a Euro commissioner in place.

Merkel seems willing, with reservations, to go along with this plan.

Curiously, while the "beer tent/Twitter" diplomacy has engrossed Germany and much of Europe, the one country where it has received second billing is France.

That's because on Monday, Macron was hosting Russian president Vladimir Putin at the palace of Versailles. This was ostensibly anniversary diplomacy, to mark 300 years since the visit of the Russian Czar, Peter the Great, to France.

French President Emmanuel Macron, right, drives a golf cart with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the garden of the Versailles Palace on Monday, May 29, 2017. Macron said he had 'extremely frank, direct' talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Alexei Nikolsky/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

For Macron it was another round of political muscle-flexing. Before the meeting with Putin he said he would talk tough and he did, both privately and publicly. At their joint press conference Macron demanded that Russia show respect for minority rights, and said Paris would hold the Kremlin directly responsible if there were further chemical attacks by Assad's forces in Syria.

He underlined again the West's anger over the Kremlin's annexation of Crimea. And for good measure he publicly denounced two Kremlin-financed news organizations, RT and Sputnik, as "organs of influence and lying propaganda" that had tried to poison the French presidential election campaign.

Putin had to stand silently and take it.

And so one last wrestling metaphor: Europe now has a powerful tag team. While one takes on Trump, the other pins Putin. And like all such good teams they can switch about. Macron can turn Trump's knuckles white and Merkel has already gone many rounds with Putin.

A year after the Brexit vote and six months after the Trump triumph, Europe's leaders seem to be filled with a new fighting spirit.


Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.