In a widely-read interview with the German daily tabloid Bild just days before his inauguration, Donald Trump called the British decision to leave the EU “smart,” and predicted that other member states would follow suit.
The spectacle of Europe’s strongest ally, the United States, calling into question the value of the EU—the model of the regional order backed by most European countries—marked a fundamental shift in transatlantic relations. As for Germany itself, such comments shook the foundations of its postwar policy orientation—and not only in foreign policy. After all, the EU that successive German governments have built together with their European partners since the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, as well as the transatlantic alliance, have developed into an environment highly conducive to domestic German interests.
No doubt, the internal cohesion of the Union has been challenged long before the U.S. presidential election brought a president into power who has little appetite and understanding of the Union’s design and inner workings, and of its de facto and undiscovered potential to shape European and global politics.
“I believe we Europeans have our destiny in our own hands,” Angela Merkel said as a response to Donald Trump. “I will continue to invest in the 27 EU members to closely cooperate,” she added.
In all its simplicity, this phrase reflected a clear strategic choice. Berlin knows from its latest interactions with London and Washington that within both there is a high degree of unpredictability and perhaps fundamental differences in terms of outlook on European and global affairs. The federal government also knows that it has limited resources to directly influence behavior in the UK and the U.S. as both capitals are in their respective periods of transition at the moment. Instead, the strongest leverage Berlin believes it has at this point in time is to improve the cohesion and performance of the other member states. Berlin does not shy away from interacting with the U.S. and the UK on core issues, at times even confronting both. But the German federal government has invested by far the largest energy into re-engaging its EU partners.
Berlin holds few illusions about the difficulty of this task. Multiple crises over the past decade have left the EU and its members looking weak and divided. Even a country of the resources and power of Germany appeared unable to make its influence count, and Berlin has so far failed to translate its power into fixing the EU’s most pressing problems regarding the future of the euro, European security, and the challenge of migration. Berlin witnessed a number of exceptionally lonely moments over the past years. But instead of following calls to become the “new leader of the free world,” Chancellor Merkel’s coalition government has consciously made a renewed choice for Europe.
2017 looks like the year in which the narrative of the past decade—a Union losing ever more traction among both governments and citizens, and therefore power—might be turned into a winning story again. The threat of disintegration with the prospect of the third largest member, the United Kingdom, leaving the Union, as well as the prospect of a U.S. president calling into question transatlantic burden sharing has unleashed new dynamics. In France, Emmanuel Macron is set to win the presidential elections with a distinctly pro-EU and reformist agenda, and is out to build his “En Marche” movement into a force in parliament in June. In Germany, Chancellor Merkel is facing a challenger for the federal elections in September who is a champion of a Europe strong and united. Martin Schulz will push Merkel to be more ambitious again in reforming the Union, and is aiming to enter the Chancellery to complete that job himself.
This is an optimistic take on Europe’s 2017 election year. But it would be a mistake to underestimate the glue that EU membership still holds, and the protectionist reflex in core European countries, and among important parts of the electorates, of the Union that benevolent partners across the Atlantic once helped develop and flourish.
Such a renewal of the European dream is of fundamental interest to the United States—and one of the best remedies against a faltering transatlantic alliance.
 „Was an mir Deutsch ist?“, Interview with Donald Trump, Bild, 16 January 2017, pp. 2-3.
Almut Möller is Senior Policy Fellow and Head of Berlin Office, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). She is a participant in AICGS’ project “A German-American Dialogue of the Next Generation: Global Responsibility, Joint Engagement.”
This blog post is sponsored by the Transatlantik-Programm der Bundesrepublik Deutschland aus Mitteln des European Recovery Program (ERP) des Bundesministeriums für Wirtschaft und Energie (BMWi).
The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.