Germany to Mexico

Merkel First

Merkel in Argentinien
A provocative visit: German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking in Argentina this week. Source: Michael Kappeler / DPA [M]

The German chancellor doesn’t just hop on a plane and take a trip. Before Angela Merkel gets underway, delegation lists are carefully drawn up, elaborate travel booklets are printed. Advisers hold background meetings to establish the focus of the trip. And of course there is always a detailed bulletin on what sort of weather to expect.

And there is always another travelling companion for Ms. Merkel – and that is the world’s attention. This is especially true at the moment as Ms. Merkel is auditioning for the role of “leader of the free world”, taking positions diametrically opposed to those of the US president, Donald Trump. The fact that, for the first time in her term in office, the chancellor was paying a visit to Argentina was just about as much excitement as her followers could handle. Her plan to fly on to Mexico at the weekend almost caused them to hyperventilate with excitement.

In Berlin, people were asking when the date for this visit had been set. Was it a provocation that Ms. Merkel would pay her respects to a country whose inhabitants Mr. Trump has described as rapists, and who he wants to keep out of the US with a giant wall?

Even if nobody is inclined to state this explicitly, one purpose of Ms. Merkel’s visit to south and central America must also be to seek new allies.

Answering that question poses a dilemma for Ms. Merkel’s advisers. They could just point out that the trip was already planned in January and it is  part of the traveling diplomacy in which the chancellor must engage this year, as G20 president.

On the other hand, they are not averse to conveying – at least a little bit – the impression that the destination may indeed be symbolic. And even if nobody is inclined to state this explicitly, one purpose of Ms. Merkel’s visit to south and central America must also be to seek new allies in the turbulent Trump era.

The chancellor needs to gather support before the G20 summit in Hamburg, where she will affirm the need for climate protection and free trade; doubtless she is worried that Mr. Trump might try and bully her causes out of the Elbphilharmonie, the concert hall that is the venue of the summit.

That is why, these days, when it comes to making announcements, Berlin is engaged in a remarkable, and noteworthy, diplomatic balancing act. When Mr. Trump was making all those threats, they say, he didn’t mean it, he was just campaigning. After all, the North American Free Trade Agreement, commonly known as NAFTA, has not yet been canceled, the wall has not yet been built on Mexico’s border. And yes, during Ms. Merkel’s visit there will be a heavily symbolic meeting with Mexico’s NAFTA negotiator. And of course, the plan to wall the country off from its neighbor is regrettable in Germany’s eyes.

And so it goes, the back and forth. Ms. Merkel doesn’t want to isolate Mr. Trump. But she certainly intends to strengthen her coalition of the willing, in regard to issues like climate and trade and anything else that arises. Senior officials are already hinting that the G20 summit at the beginning of July will be a testing ground not only for these topics, but perhaps the whole world order.

So it can’t hurt Germany to be able to count on the support of a country like Mexico, the tenth largest economy on the planet – even if it turns out that Mr. Trump isn’t pleased by Ms. Merkel’s visit. Because for the German chancellor, what is far more important is to have her own coalition of the willing waiting in the wings. Or, if we put it into the populist terms we hear so often now, it’s all about Merkel First.

This article first appeared in WirtschaftsWoche, a sister publication of Handelsblatt. To contact the author:

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