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Analysis

Trump-Merkel Washington debut

Walls, migration, protectionism: transatlantic parallels

by David Marsh in London

Fri 17 Mar 2017

Donald Trump and Angela Merkel are both interested in walls – and they may discuss them when they meet for the first time in the White House in Washington today. What bonds, divides and disturbs the German and US leaders is migration.

Trump’s solution, which even the president must know can only be a partial one, is to build a protective barrier separating the US and Mexico. The German chancellor, in office since 2005, witnessed the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 first-hand as a 35-year-old functionary in East Germany’s Academy of Science. She believes that walls are no answer.

This is one of the more obvious areas that may separate them today. Trump has labelled Merkel's decision to welcome hundreds of thousands of refugees into Germany, many from Islamic countries, a ‘catastrophic mistake’.

Observers make much of Trump-Merkel differences in style and substance. There is plenty of tinder: Russia, the European Union, human rights, protectionism, the US trade deficit with Germany. The president’s impetuosity stands in contrast to the chancellor’s alleged immovability. Trump awakens bad memories of two cavalier European leaders with whom Merkel had notoriously poor relations: Nicolas Sarkozy, French president in 2007-12; and Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian magnate who overlapped twice with Merkel as prime minister.

Stereotypes should not be taken too far. Merkel, for all her trademark caution, has a record in springing surprises. Recall her politically disruptive, legally dubious 2008 unveiling of a blanket guarantee for all German retail savers’ bank deposits, or her populist U-turn against nuclear energy in 2011 after Japan’s Fukushima disaster.

For all the shared US-German business, economic and security interests since the second world war, there is no shortage of past antagonism. Chancellor Helmut Schmidt sparred with Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan during his eight-year rule. Gerhard Schröder clashed with George W. Bush over the Iraq war. And Barack Obama had to seek help from Mario Monti as Italian premier in trying to understand Merkel – whom he famously reduced to tears in 2010 during a campaign to force Germany’s hand over financial assistance for Greece.

Merkel and Trump may find biographical congruence. Merkel, like Trump during his scaling of the Republican party, appeared a highly improbable leader of Germany’s mainstream conservatives. Like the US president, she has systematically demolished opposition from well-placed but less assiduous male party rivals.

Migration history may be another uniting factor. Trump’s German-born grandfather Friedrich Trump, who emigrated from Germany to the US in 1885 to seek his fortune during the gold rush, was denied repatriation by the Bavarian authorities when he tried to re-establish himself in Germany in 1905. Merkel, born in Hamburg in 1954, moved east aged three months when her idealistically driven pastor father followed his bishops’ command to build up the protestant church in communist East Germany. Both father and daughter were initially lukewarm on German reunification.

The media will focus on comparisons with Theresa May, another pastor’s daughter, who visited the White House in late January. The Trump administration’s misspelling of the British prime minister’s name as ‘Teresa’ raised attention seven weeks ago. Merkel, celebrated for her attention to detail, might like to reflect on an item from the British archives.

She made her first official visit to the UK in 1990, part of a delegation to see the British government accompanying Lothar de Maizière, the first (and only) democratically elected East German prime minister. UK documents of June 1990 describe her as ‘Frau Angela Merkela’ – an orthographical peculiarity that hints at wider parallels in the British and German leaders’ first dealings with the Washington incumbent.

David Marsh is Managing Director of OMFIF.

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