Merkel steps up in EU and Germany; Trump returns to family crisis; More Australian troops to be sent to Afghanistan. By Hamish McDonald.

Europe must control its own fate: Merkel

Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump during the G7 summit in Sicily.
Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump during the G7 summit in Sicily.

Amid the brass-band oompah, lederhosen-slapping and beer-stein lifting of a Bavarian election rally, Angela Merkel let off a raspberry that resounded around the world and seems to have been widely appreciated by fellow leaders.

“The times in which we could totally rely on others are to some extent over, as I have experienced in the past two days,” the German chancellor said, making it clear she was talking about Donald Trump, whom she’d just come from meeting at the G7 summit in Sicily. “We Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands.”

As we went to press, Trump was mulling a grand, dismissive return gesture to the Europeans and indeed most of the world – whether to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate change accord of 2015.

Last weekend saw Trump in truculent isolation from the six other G7 leaders on the issue. Earlier he’d been equally boorish at a NATO summit, not expressing commitment to the treaty article pledging the support of all if one member is attacked, and shouldering aside the leader of NATO’s newest member, Montenegro, to get himself front and centre of the commemorative photo.

The new French president, Emmanuel Macron, expressed himself by besting Trump at his handshake trick, later saying such “symbolism” was important. He went home to give the visiting Russian leader a stiff reception about nerve-gas attacks by Vladimir Putin’s ally in Syria, the Ukrainian incursions, and persecution of gays in Chechnya.

But it was Merkel who signalled this week a bigger role for Germany – in binding the European Union and in global affairs – in response to Trump’s “America First” doctrine and Brexit. She received India’s Narendra Modi and China’s Li Keqiang to promote the EU and Germany as strategic partner, coincidentally making the point the US isn’t the only fish in the sea.

The Germans are still rightly wary about putting their stamp on Europe. The terms of their bailouts in southern Europe have created resentment and gibes about the Third Reich. So Merkel will work closely with Macron, perhaps conceding some common European development projects if not the jointly guaranteed Eurobonds he has proposed.

Angela momentum

With her elections approaching on September 24, Merkel seems destined for another term as chancellor, according to the polls, defying earlier sentiment that after nearly 12 years in the job and a number of contentious decisions taken on her own, she was jaded.

The left-centre Social Democratic Party enjoyed a lift when it recently installed Martin Schulz as leader, but he has failed to develop the stature expected by the Germans. Most of his recent career has been spent in Brussels on the EU gravy train, which doesn’t help, and he is noted for buffoonish behaviour such as producing scissors to cut off the neckties of interlocutors.

Merkel’s grand gesture in 2015 of leaving German borders open to a million refugees quickly turned sour after young North African migrants molested women en masse at Cologne’s railway station the following New Year’s Eve. About 15,000 asylum seekers are still arriving every month, but a deal with Turkey stopped the great human flow from that direction.

Migration politics still simmer. Evening strollers around Munich’s Marienplatz one evening last week saw young Africans waving a banner reading Flüchtlinge bleiben, Nazis vertreiben – Keep refugees, expel Nazis. Next evening a group called Pegida (from the German for “Patriotic Europeans Against Islamisation of the Occident”) were on the same spot, arguing that rather than welcoming refugees to struggle in a new country, it was more helpful to aid reconstruction in their homes. Some difficulty there in Syria, one would think.

Yet the larger far-right movement, Alternative für Deutschland, which takes a strong anti-immigration line, has also hit a lowish ceiling, though it will probably cross the 5 per cent threshold of the total vote to get into the Bundestag.

Merkel, it has to be remembered, is a clever political tactician. Her swipe at Trump and stress on boosting European defence was calculated to please the conservative Bavarians, while taking wind out of the sails of the Social Democrats and Greens who are more critical of US policies. German political scientists call it “asymmetric demobilisation”, which is a long expression for the kind of co-option Malcolm Turnbull has recently employed. Merkel used it before, notably by shutting down Germany’s nuclear reactors after the Fukushima disaster in Japan, and switching to the wind and solar generators that now dot the landscape. Martin Schulz attempted to catch up this week by accusing Trump of “destroying” Western values.

Opinion polls in Britain suggest she’ll remain pre-eminent in Europe after Thursday’s election there. Theresa May’s expectations of building a super-majority to strengthen her hand in Brexit negotiations are now looking shakier, while Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn has pulled back from the earlier signs of a wipeout.

In-law and order

Trump returned to Washington to face a growing crisis about the links of son-in-law and closest adviser Jared Kushner with the Russian government.

More detail is emerging after The Washington Post broke the story a week back that Kushner had met Sergey Kislyak twice in the interregnum between Trump’s election win and his inauguration, proposing a secure channel be set up using Russia’s embassy communications from the White House to Putin in the Kremlin. The Post got onto the story after an anonymous source sent transcripts of messages or calls from Ambassador Kislyak to Moscow, presumably from intercepts and decryption by a US intelligence agency.

Kushner was accompanied in the first meeting by Trump adviser Mike Flynn, already compromised by his failure to declare earnings and contacts with the Russians. Along with the ambassador came Russian banker Sergey Gorkov, whose Vnesheconombank last year was found to have accommodated an agent of the Russian foreign intelligence service, SVR, under the cover of working for the bank’s New York office. Gorkov himself studied at Russia’s Federal Security Service training academy.

On other fronts, a US federal court of appeals has ruled against Trump’s plan to ban travel from six Muslim-majority nations, saying it “drips with religious intolerance, animus and discrimination”. Trump’s budget for the new fiscal year starting in October has been widely panned by both Democrats and Republicans. White House communications director Michael Dubke quit for “personal” reasons.

Putting the boots in

Here we go again in Afghanistan. Defence Minister Marise Payne announced Australia will send an additional 30 trainers to work with the Afghan army, bringing our total military presence there to about 300, two days before an insurgent suicide bomber set off a truck bomb in Kabul’s diplomatic quarter, killing at least 80 people and wounding hundreds more.

The dispatch is a gesture to the US’s call for more boots on the ground from allies. Its commander wants another 5000 troops in addition to the 13,000 American, NATO and others remaining since Barack Obama’s drawdowns.

After 16 years, $US800 billion, some 2000 US combat deaths and about 40 dead Australians, it would be good to know Washington and its allies have worked out a better way of approaching this war.

But it seems not. Pakistan is still playing both sides – the Americans and the Afghan Taliban. The US spurned the offer of help from Iran in 2001, despite its huge influence over the non-Pashtun groups in Afghanistan, and still seems likely to do so. It won’t take a pragmatic approach to opium cultivation, on which many Afghan farmers depend, by licensing crops and buying them. As the recent dropping of the 10-tonne “Mother of All Bombs” showed, use of air power is being less restricted.

A clique of Australia’s retired army brass has been beefing recently about how their troops were called sissies by the Yanks in Iraq and Afghanistan because of their cautious terms of engagement. They seem to be suggesting a freer hand in new conflicts such as Afghanistan, and casualties be damned. Isn’t there something in the military textbooks about not reinforcing failure?


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 3, 2017 as "Europe must control its own fate: Merkel".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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