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Merkel's refusal to visit US shows Germany's changed priorities

By Ian Buruma | CGTN | Updated: 2020-06-04 09:50
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel. /Reuters

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, considered by many as Europe's most powerful politician, has refused to honor US President Donald Trump's invitation for a proposed G7 summit in Washington. The rebuff came on the plea that her personal participation cannot be ensured because of the pandemic situation.

Unlike Trump, the businessman, Merkel is a research scientist by professional training. That means she is convinced more with facts than with political rhetoric. Her response to the COVID-19 crisis has been far better than that of the US in terms of enforcing social distancing protocols, protecting health workers and avoiding deaths.

She is also joined by other world leaders in shunning the invitation to the event. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he cannot commit to attending and, likewise, French President Emmanuel Macron avoided a commitment in a phone call with Trump last week.

The summit was originally planned in March, but seeing the worsening coronavirus situation, Trump switched it to a videoconference. Then he decided to host it in his Miami golf resort in June, only to later change the venue to Washington after a public outcry. After Merkel's refusal, he has delayed it until September.

Trump's fixation to hold some form of a meeting of global leaders comes from his desire to portray normalcy in the US even if there isn't any. The election date is nearing, and it's crisis after the crisis – exacerbated by his inability to handle it – is shrinking his chances at a second term. As he views each event through a political lens, his responses largely remain disconnected from practicality.

The best estimate for the mass availability of a vaccine is by late this year. Forced attempts at portraying normalcy in the US before that risk a second wave of infection, even as the first hasn't fully subsided. Contrary to Trump's approach, other countries are concerned about the return to normalcy rather than a mere portrayal.

Take China, for example. The most populous nation now has one of the least numbers of new cases. Despite effectively containing the disease, it is not making any such irresponsible moves. Instead, it is calling for boosting cooperation and strengthening multilateral bodies like the World Health Organization.

What we are seeing in the US is exactly the opposite. Trump has terminated his country's relationship with the WHO, forcing a strong reaction from Germany in addition to the rest of the world. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called the decision the "wrong signal at the wrong time," and the Health Minister Jens Spahn termed it a "disappointing backlash for international health."

The headquarters of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland. /VCG

Such divergences between Germany and the US on global problems have been widening of late. According to a report by Politico, Trump and Merkel had heated disagreements on a phone call last week on issues related to security, trade and relations with China.

It is pertinent to mention that Germany has been moving closer to China during the past few years. A survey conducted by the Washington-based Pew Research Center in April revealed that Germans are increasingly viewing their ties with China more important than with the United States.

German leadership, too, is solidifying the country's relations with China. Merkel said last month that China would be a priority for Germany's upcoming EU presidency, whereas her foreign minister wants to build "a robust EU strategy on China" in the coming months. Germany is also pushing for an early conclusion of discussions on the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI, an ambitious trade deal between the EU and China that will take their dealings to a new high.

In the post-COVID-19 period, Germany and China have been working together to accelerate the economic recovery process. As factories in China are steadily resuming their pre-lockdown production levels, scores of German executives who had gone back during the epidemic are returning under an accelerated entry process. Moreover, the car manufacturing giant Volkswagen AG has announced that it will be pumping 2 billion euros (2.24 billion US dollars) in the Chinese electric vehicle market.

This is in sharp contrast with attempts – though unsuccessful – by the Trump administration to convince American companies to leave China. American companies, German companies and the German leadership, all realize China's importance in international trade, but it is only the US government that is bent upon making China a scapegoat of all the troubles that started with the ongoing stint in the Oval Office.

The America that Europe looked up to is nowhere in sight. Rampant racism that had been brewing frustration for a generation has concluded into a draconian curfew presently imposed on millions of Americans. Had this been happening elsewhere, the White House would have been calling for a regime change by now.

His penchant for unilateralism in security and trade matters has left the transatlantic partnership in tatters. The politically motivated tariff war, effects of which still linger, damaged commercial activities in the EU, China and even back in the United States.

Had world leaders agreed to attend the G7 summit, they would have handed Trump a photo op for collecting the credit of defeating the virus. Instead, Germany and the rest of Europe are now more interested in investing with a rising economic power rather than pursuing a battered relationship with a retreating one.

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