Merkel tries to project calm amid Trumpian turbulence

After tempestuous meetings with Donald Trump at this weekend's G7 summit in Canada, German Chancellor Angela Merkel continues to try to project strength at home and abroad, writes Margaret Evans.

Germany 'still waking up to the new realities,' says one expert

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has repeatedly said that political changes in the U.S. mean that Europe must now be responsible for its own destiny. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

A picture is worth a thousand words, right? Until you look at it from someone else's angle.

The photograph pinging its way around the Twittersphere with the greatest impact in the wake of the G7 summit has been the one showing German Chancellor Angela Merkel seemingly staring down at a seated, defensive-looking Donald Trump, while other leaders look on.

This immediately iconic photo of leaders and advisers at the G7 summit in Charlevoix, Que., was posted to Merkel's Instagram account on June 9. (Jesco Denzel/German Federal Government via AP)

Much has been made of the picture's likeness to a painting by one of the Golden Age masters in terms of lighting and composition. But other photos of the same scene taken by other delegations a moment or two later, or from a different vantage point, have a less confrontational feel.

The real significance of that photo lies in the fact that Merkel's delegation released it. This is how Germany wants its leader to be seen: leading Europe and in a position of strength vis-a-vis the U.S. president, who remains a thorn in Merkel's side.

The G7 summit comes in the wake of the arrival in Berlin of Trump's new ambassador to Germany. Richard Grenell had barely hung up his hat in May before he was annoying his new hosts.

On the day he arrived, he tweeted that Germans doing business in Iran "should wind down operations immediately." Trump had announced the day before that Washington was pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, despite the pleas of Germany and other signatories to the deal.

Last week, Grenell waded even further into deep water, when he gave an interview to the alt-right Breitbart news agency saying he wanted to "empower" anti-establishment conservative forces across Europe.   

"I think there is a groundswell of conservative policies that are taking hold because of the failed policies of the left," he told Breitbart, once home to former Trump advisor Steve Bannon.

Richard Grenell, second from left, ruffled feathers on his first day as U.S. ambassador to Germany when he suggested he wanted to 'empower' anti-establishment conservative forces across Europe. (Osamu Honda/Associated Press)

The comment caused a minor uproar in Germany — the foreign ministry asked for an explanation and a number of politicians demanded that Grenell be recalled for seemingly trying to influence German politics.

Testing the transatlantic alliance

"It is right for the German government to ask him to explain his comments and to insist on the rules governing international diplomacy," says Anna Kuchenbecker, a senior director at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), based in Berlin.  

Kuchenbecker says that in terms of style and agenda, Grenell is merely an extension of the challenges the Trump presidency is already posing to Germany and the transatlantic alliance.

"Germany is still waking up to the new realities, still grappling with it," she says.  

In an interview with the German broadcaster ARD on Sunday, Merkel said the EU will be going ahead with counter-measures to Washington's steel and aluminum tariffs in the days ahead, adding, "we won't let ourselves be taken advantage of again and again."

She described the outcome of the acrimonious G7 meeting as both "sobering" and "depressing."

Hearken back to those photos over the years of Merkel and Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, during their shared time in office, and you feel like Merkel's comment is as much personal as it is a reference to the business of state.

Merkel and Obama forged a warm and close partnership despite some bumps in 2013, when it emerged that the U.S. had been spying on Merkel by tapping her mobile phone.

Kuchenbecker says it is an adjustment for Germany to see itself being shifted from Washington's closest ally in Europe (given Britain's decision to leave the EU) to the top of the not-so-important list.

"Merkel stands for everything Trump dislikes," Kuchenbecker says. "Multilateralism, climate change, migration, NATO."  

"Even when [Merkel and Obama] disagreed, Obama never questioned the shared foundations of liberal democracy, and Donald Trump continues to do that," she says.

Dissension at home

In potentially stirring up populism and the anti-immigrant sentiment that can often accompany it, Washington's new U.S. ambassador to Germany could stir up trouble for Merkel domestically.

German health minister Jens Spahn, one of Merkel's fiercest critics within the conservative wing of her Christian Democratic Union, is a regular on Grenell's Twitter feed.

Spahn has led the charge against Merkel for her decision to allow more than one million Syrian refugees into Germany back in 2015, one of the reasons Time magazine named her Person of the Year.

Spahn's influence in the party, coupled with a weak coalition partner in the form of the Social Democrats, has reduced Merkel's room to manoeuvre at home.

Merkel has repeatedly said that the changes in the U.S. mean that Europe must now take on responsibility for its own destiny. And there are many who believe that opposition to Trump might forge a tighter unity within the European Union.

Merkel, front, characterized the tenor of the G7 summit this past weekend as 'depressing.' (The Associated Press)

"You can destroy trust within seconds with 280 Twitter characters," said German foreign minister Haiko Maas after Trump announced — by Twitter — that he would not sign the G7 communique, after earlier indicating he would.

"Rebuilding [trust] takes longer," said Maas. "We now must keep cool and take the appropriate steps. One of those will be standing up for our interests in Europe in a much more united fashion."

Still the 'queen of Europe'?

But the German magazine Der Spiegel recently ran an article headlined "Merkel No Longer the Queen of Europe." The EU is not just France, Germany and, for now, the UK. It also embraces Hungary and Poland, whose populist governments are considered much closer to Trump in style and substance than Merkel's or that of French President Emmanuel Macron.

And let's not forget Italy, which has just formed a Euroskeptic, anti-immigrant coalition government.

Still, Merkel has been underestimated on more than one occasion. And she still represents a steady hand in a turbulent world for many. In a recent poll, just 14 per cent of Germans said they consider the U.S a reliable partner.

"The public discussion in Germany is still very emotional," says Kuchenbecker, "but [in reality] we cannot afford losing the U.S. as a partner, because of defence and in terms of trade."        

That means Germany will have a very difficult line to walk.

"In terms of strategy, it's difficult to take a tough stand, but it's probably necessary," she says. "Donald Trump smells weakness. And he understands the language of strength and power." 

And that's why that photo with Merkel in the spotlight, does speak a thousand words.

About the Author

Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.


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