BERLIN — On Saturday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Donald Trump released a joint statement regarding their first phone call earlier that day. The statement about their 45-minute conversation noted — in the neutral tone common to all statements of this kind — that a wide range of topics were discussed: NATO, the Middle East, north Africa, Russia and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.
In light of the outrage Trump's immigration order against citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries has caused, the chancellor's press secretary, Steffen Seibert, thought it necessary on Sunday to elaborate on the topics covered during the phone call. He said that Merkel deeply regretted the U.S. president's immigration curbs and had voiced her displeasure to him during the phone call.
Merkel explained to Trump that the U.S., as a signatory to the Geneva Convention, had to accept refugees from war-torn regions for humanitarian reasons. Translation of this diplomatic speak: Merkel gave the U.S. president a lecture on international law.
This was, by itself, unusual. It was even more unusual for a press secretary to publicly announce what had transpired. It may be interpreted as evidence of the difficult relationship between Merkel and Trump, which is Trump's fault, as he had attacked Merkel's refugee policies during his presidential campaign. Even after his election victory, and shortly before he began his presidential term, Trump repeated this opinion in interviews with German newspaper Bild and Britain's The Times.
To be fair, Merkel has done little to ease their troubled relationship. Her immediate reaction to Trump's election, for example, felt like a lecture on morals, democracy and human rights. Merkel offered to work with Trump but only if he respected their "shared values' and then went on to name these factors. Other nations read her reaction as the lecture it was intended to be. The result? She was viewed as the new leader of the free world by American and international media, which did not go unnoticed in Washington.
President Trump on the phone with Chancellor Merkel on Jan. 28 — Pete Marovich/CNP/ZUMA
Merkel's raised stature may flatter Germans. Merkel is able to increase her popularity by distancing herself from Trump because most Germans reject Trump. But by doing so, Merkel has chosen a dangerous path because she openly risks being seen as an international enemy of the president. That's not in her interest. Neither is it in Europe's interest.
Trump's skepticism of the European Union is well known as is his support of Britain's exit from the EU, the so-called "Brexit." The EU is facing its most difficult period since its conception and it doesn't need an annoyed superpower that openly sides with enemies of Europe.
Merkel has become the source of strength and leadership in Europe since Brexit. That's why Merkel would do no favors to Europe if she were to become an antagonistic figure in Trump's mind. The president is known to quickly, and simplistically, divide people into friend or foe. He is also known to be vain and easily insulted. As understandable as it would be to continually oppose Trump, it would not be the smartest move to do so.
The EU already has a powerful enemy within Trump's inner circle, namely former Breitbart boss Steve Bannon, whose radical stance has become evident in the first few days of Trump's presidency. For Bannon, an anti-establishment figure, the EU embodies everything that he hates. He views it as a project of cosmopolitan elites, which is why he has formed close ties with anti-EU populists within Europe. His mouthpiece Breitbart News is now attempting to become a megaphone for those who want to crush the existing system.
Bannon, Trump's chief strategist, is also going to play a central role in future foreign policies as Trump has appointed him a permanent member to the National Security Council — a panel that is usually made up of security experts. This is an unprecedented elevation of a political animal. It's telling that the director of National Intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will no longer be permanent members of this council.
It's already tough for people like defense secretary James Mattis, a supporter of transatlantic relations, to convince Trump to play America's traditional role of being a stabilizing counterweight to Europe. Merkel would therefore be well-advised to resist the temptation to distinguish herself as Trump's adversary. By doing so she risks making the lives of people like Bannon easier, and fanning the flames of anti-European sentiment in Trump's mind.