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They were aimed at four distinct audiences

THE CSU, the Bavarian sister party of Angela Merkel’s CDU, hosted a political rally in a tent in eastern Munich today. It was all very local and friendly: the chancellor arrived to a brass-band serenade and had to battle her way through the beery crowd to reach the podium. But the speech she gave this afternoon is now ricocheting around the world. Having alluded to Donald Trump and Brexit she concluded: “The times in which we could totally rely on others are to some extent over, as I have experienced in the past two days.” (This was a reference to the G7 summit in Sicily.) For good measure she added: “We Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands.”

The comments are uncontroversial in Germany, as the minute-long applause that greeted them in Munich illustrated. Seen from here, Mr Trump’s America looks straightforwardly ugly and almost congenitally volatile. “We Europeans have our fate in our own hands”, Mrs Merkel had said in January following the then president-elect’s description of NATO as “obsolete”. Relaxing with journalists on the flight back from her visit to Washington in March she is said to have been openly contemptuous of him. Meanwhile Britain’s departure from EU is seen here as a regretfully unambiguous retreat from the world stage.

But Mrs Merkel will have known that voicing these commonplaces in this moment and in these terms would make waves. So what was up?

To be sure, she was speaking her mind. By German standards Mrs Merkel is an Atlanticist. She gets on decently with both Barack Obama (back in Berlin on Thursday for a love-in with her at a Protestant church festival) and with George W. Bush, whom she still phones occasionally for advice. But Mr Trump, Brexit and the election of Emmanuel Macron in France have together persuaded Germany’s chancellor that while talk of Germany as “the new leader of the liberal world” is nonsense, continental Europeans must now do more in unison, perhaps with some German convening. On everything from defence integration to EU treaty change her tone has subtly shifted: to something bolder, more open and less brusquely transactional. That is how Mrs Merkel works. Her trademark adaptability is always inconspicuous—until it is not.

But the chancellor only speaks her mind when she has an audience in her sights. In this case there were four.

The first was the one before her in that sweaty Munich tent: the CSU. With the CDU/CSU now surging ahead in the polls it is hard to remember that Mrs Merkel’s more conservative Bavarian sister party was recently flirting with divorce. The two sides had fallen out over her handling of the refugee crisis. Today’s event was part of the healing process. Mrs Merkel emphasised the unity of the two parties. Part of that was her focus on subjects uniting her liberal sort of conservatism with the CSU’s more conventionally christian democratic brand; subjects like Europe, defence and her own no-nonsense leadership of Germany. Her comments on America and Britain brought these three happy themes together.

Mrs Merkel’s second and most important audience was the wider German electorate, which goes to the polls on September 24th. The poll surge enjoyed by Martin Schulz, her social democratic rival, is collapsing. But it goosed the CDU/CSU and the chancellor is taking no chances. Among Mr Schulz’s more resonant talking points are Germany’s internationalist, European vocation—he defines himself as the anti-Trump—and his opposition to Mrs Merkel’s insistence that German defence spending eventually hit the NATO target of 2% of GDP. Her words today buttressed both flanks. They emphasised that Mrs Merkel is keenly European but that the country cannot afford to depend indefinitely on the military shield of wayward Anglo-Saxon allies. They reframed and helped disarm two of her opponent’s most potent arguments before the election campaign has even started.

The chancellor’s third audience was the rest of the EU. Recent events may have tilted German politics slightly, but Berlin knows that other member states are different. In missing NATO’s 2% target for defence, Germany is in the majority, not the minority. Even in France—with which Germany wants to create new bilateral structures around which others might eventually congregate—Euroscepticism remains a strong force. Berlin does not like to wag its finger directly at other members of the club, in public at least. Where possible it prefers to nudge the rest of the EU by tweaking its own public and diplomatic orthodoxies. Mrs Merkel did that this afternoon.

Her final audience comprised America and Britain themselves. However unfairly, many in the German elite talk about the election of Mr Trump and the vote for Brexit as a single phenomenon (call it “Trumpandbrexit”). Berlin tends to underestimate its own strengths, but it does believe it can help shape Trumpandbrexit at the edges with a combination of stick and carrot. Mrs Merkel has some carrots: insisting that Britain should not be punished for Brexit, resisting Mr Trump’s irritable barbs in Washington and enrapturing him during that visit with hair-raising talk of the dangers of global pandemics. But she also has sticks: reminding the British that they have conclusively forfeited the privileges of EU membership and stipulating that co-operation with Mr Trump will be “on the basis of shared values”. Today’s comments belong to this latter genre—a rare but substantive reminder to the Anglo-Saxons that they should not treat Germany as a pushover, as Mr Trump seemed to do in Sicily.

Foreigners often get Mrs Merkel all wrong. She is not the queen of Europe, nor has she any desire to be it. She is a domestic leader and politician whose mounting international stature is always a function of her ability to serve the interests and predilections of German voters. It is predominantly because Germans, for deep historical and cultural reasons, feel so “European” that that she talks and acts in a “European” way. Perhaps all the more for this, Mrs Merkel’s comments today illustrate how much Trumpandbrexit has hurt America and Britain in the past months. They have made it not just possible but also electorally beneficial for a friendly leader of a crucial partner to bash them in public. And more than that: to do it with sincerity.

by J. C. | HAMBURG

(Economist, 28. 5. 2017)

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