"Who do I call if I want to call Europe?"

© Chappatte in The New York Times


“Who you gonna call?” sang the Ghostbusters, echoing Henry Kissinger’s famous quip on Europe. “What’s the number?” The EU thought it had answered his exasperated query in 2009 by choosing Cathy Ashton as High Rep to talk to his then successor as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. But maybe the question was apocryphal all along. “Keine Antwort unter dieser Nummer.”

Even so, the EU – and US – have acted as if the gravelly old groaner’s question really mattered. Under Barack Obama the priority number was that of the German Chancellery in Berlin where Angela Merkel held sway over Europe. Today, under the ever-volatile Donald J. Trump, the word from there is that she’s been given the “brush-off” after the US President’s “bromance” with the “perfect” Emmanuel Macron (apart from the odd dandruff fleck).

This seems to matter because, in a world increasingly divided into economic/trading blocs, Europe (it’s said) must speak with one voice to the US, China, Russia et al. Yet, has it ever in truth? In the old days, when the UK mattered in Washington DC as now it doesn’t, Europe meant Giscard/Schmidt in the 1970s and Kohl/Mitterrand in the 1980s and 90s; these Franco-German duos certainly drove the EU forward. So, should it now be Macron-Merkel or ‘Mercron’ to mirror ‘Merkozy’ a decade ago?

Clearly, the French President is in the ascendancy and not just because of a kiss on the cheek. “The American and the Frenchman see themselves—and each other—as men of action whose success is based on their ability to disrupt established rules and institutions,” pointed out Constanze Stelzenmüller of the Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings ahead of the Macron/Merkel visits to Washington last week. She added: “Of all the European heads of state and government, Emmanuel Macron has best understood how to respond to the Trump phenomenon. Paris participated in the punitive strikes against Syria‘s ruler Bashar al-Assad. France spends 1.7 percent of its GDP on defense and intends to reach 2 percent by 2024, thereby fulfilling the promise made by all European states to NATO in 2014.”

Macron’s sense of destiny (“a certain idea of France”) and complete self-confidence – contrasting with the seriously blemished characters of his predecessors, Hollande, Sarkozy and Chirac – have persuaded enough normally level-headed commentators to speak of him and de Gaulle (who addressed both Houses of Congress when Eisenhower was President almost 60 years ago) in the same breath. Merkel’s rep, in the US as in Europe, is damaged.

Trump and the latest group of advisers around him are enraged by Germany’s insouciance about reducing its huge trade surplus with the US and exasperated by Berlin’s broken promises both on defence spending (1.4 percent of GDP versus the NATO target of 2.0 percent) and military (out-of-area) engagement (Syria). The German chancellor has even had to distance herself from the proposed Nord Stream 2 gas-transmission pipeline from Russia to western Europe that by-passes Ukraine and goes under the Baltic before landing in Germany (in Merkel’s own constituency): Trump is persuaded it’s “a bad thing.”

What’s more, the latest German economic miracle – mega-current account surplus, budget surplus (“schwarze Null”-plus), low unemployment – is being seriously questioned as Europe’s biggest economy falls behind on infrastructure spending, digital investment/broadband speed and, say, driverless/electric cars. And growth is faltering. Politically, too, Merkel appears to be on a downward slope after taking some six months to stitch together yet another grand coalition that is, increasingly, exposed to the rightwards shift of the Bavarian-based CSU – sister party of Merkel’s CDU. There is open speculation she will quit halfway through her fourth mandate and be replaced by a younger woman (or man).

These political and economic factors are more important than the self-evident fact that Merkel and Trump simply don’t get on “the chemistry just isn’t right” as Jan Techau of the German Marshall Fund told the FT). On the key agenda-points of her brief “cool but cordial” visit, Iran and trade, Merkel achieved zilch as the Spiegel reported afterwards. But, then, nor did Macron live up to his billing as “America’s new bridge to Europe” even though he won standing ovations for his bravura performance in front of Congress. (“There’s no Planet B” is a great one-liner).

It’s all very well lecturing the US President and Congress about the vital necessity of defending, sustaining and enhancing the post-WW2 liberal world order and its (Enlightenment) values as Macron did. But will Trump desist from starting a trade war with the EU over steel? Will he continue playing fast-and-loose with the future of NATO?

Rather than play up what one US (Berlin-based) analyst called witheringly “European powerlessness”, Macron and Merkel would do better to develop a position of combined strength by getting to grip with Eurozone reform, the discarded plans for European defence strategy/capability and the internal threats to European liberal democracy represented by, say, Viktor Orban.

In the end, it doesn’t matter whom Mike Pompeo, Kissinger’s latest successor, or Trump calls. What counts is that Europe can speak with self-assurance and authority. One shouldn’t imagine that this will easily be done “with one voice” even with the Brits out of the door but a chorus singing from the same hymn-sheet would help.


David Gow is Senior Advisor & Consulting Editor at Acumen, and a journalist since 1968. Former German Correspondent, Industrial Editor and European Business Editor, The Guardian. Senior adviser CabinetDN 2009-17. Now: editor, Social Europe and sceptical.scot. 




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