Coverage of the G20 Meeting (or G19 + 1 depending on who you ask) this past weekend focused largely on President Trump’s obvious discomfort amongst American allies in Europe and odd desire to “agree to disagree” on the issue of Russian election interference in the 2016 US Presidential Election, but the potentially most significant story coming out of the summit was Chancellor Angela Merkel’s most pronounced effort to date to preserve Europe’s global relevance. While the stated themes of the summit appeared tailor-made to aggravate President Trump and thumb Europe’s collective nose at his “America First” rhetoric, the chosen issues, namely climate change, global free trade, and forced migration, have long been central to the German Chancellor’s agenda, irrespective of the occupant of the Oval Office. In fact, they represent Ms. Merkel’s three-part plan to save Europe while nobody is watching.
For the famously non-ideological Merkel, her dedication to fighting climate change is not born of any stereotypical “liberal” desire to save the planet but is instead a matter of Europe’s survival. Yet, for Merkel, the true cost of climate change to Europe is not retreating glaciers and water scarcity, but an influx of climate refugees from sub-Saharan Africa. While no region is spared the effects of climate change, Europe is best positioned to adapt, given its enormous GDP and bloc-wide commitment to reducing emissions. However, the opposite is true of poverty-afflicted regions in Africa, which are becoming an increasing source of migrants to the EU, entering from across the Mediterranean and the Strait of Gibraltar, even as the EU seeks to close land routes via the Middle East. According to Merkel, the only way to address the coming African diaspora is to make Africa more like Europe.
Born and raised behind the Berlin Wall, Ms. Merkel has first-hand experience of the ineffectiveness of measures designed only to stem the flow of migrants. As a result, it is one of her few guiding principles that one cannot resolve the issue of forced migration by merely limiting the movement of people, a principle which she has espoused repeatedly. Instead, Ms. Merkel has aggressively moved to get countries on board with programs to address upstream conditions in sub-Saharan and Eastern Africa, pushing mightily for African countries to cooperate economically, and for the EU to support such cooperation. High among these efforts is the promotion of Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) and Free Trade Agreements (FTAs). Ms. Merkel’s convening of African leaders during the G20 summit ties directly into the effort to convince other EU members that Europe’s survival depends on Africa’s success. Under Ms. Merkel’s leadership, the promotion of African economic development, both via the promotion of strategies to combat climate change as well as economic ties with and within the continent. Even German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, himself a vocal critic of Merkel’s open immigration policies, declared that “the global community has an interest in the better economic development of Africa.”
The importance of this mission to Europe’s long-term success in Chancellor Merkel’s mind represents why the Chancellor and President Trump have developed such a fraught relationship. President Trump’s bull-in-a-china-shop approach to global trade, immigration, and climate change directly threaten Ms. Merkel’s long-term plans to secure Europe’s future. His withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement undermines the global consensus on the costs and consequences of a shifting climate, and America’s ongoing movement away from free trade imperils global momentum towards a more open international trading environment. Whereas these issues are largely personally and politically motivated for a President with little grasp of the facts, they are much more than merely an ideological irritant for Ms. Merkel. Instead, it is a potential existential threat to Europe’s survival in the mind of the German Chancellor.
The anti-globalist, reactionary politics of Mr. Trump have already undermined Ms. Merkel’s efforts to unite the EU behind a long-term solution to forced migration. UK Prime Minister Theresa May, herself a beneficiary of the same populist energy that vaulted President Trump to office, offered her Italian counterpart British expertise to streamline the process of evicting migrants arriving from across the Mediterranean. Further, due to the United States’ resistance to joining the other G20 nations on climate change and global trade, the final G20 commitments were soft on both of these issues, though it did include a commitment to support industrialization in Africa. Ms. Merkel’s plans were calibrated to marshal uniform European action to address the migrant crisis, but the sudden emergence of President Trump and his reactionary politics could force her to change tack in a world without American leadership.
Despite her reticence to occupy the global spotlight, Ms. Merkel has carefully maneuvered Europe into a position she hopes will enable the EU to avoid the worst consequences of global forced migration. President Trump has done everything possible to imperil her efforts, which may require the German Chancellor to take a more active leadership role on the international stage.
Matthew Brewer is an independent analyst and author who covers European Politics and Economics. He holds a Master’s Degree in European Studies and International Economics from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a degree in German Studies from Oberlin College.
Photo courtesy of the White House and is Public Domain