Giles Merritt, Founder and Chairman of Friends of Europe:
Merkel's message is a warning to Trump
US President is right to criticise the Western allies, not because they don't spend enough on defence, but because they don't spend on the right things
24 June, 2017
Close-up: Giles Merritt is the Founder and Chairman of Friends of Europe, a leading Brussels-based think tank that stimulates debate and triggers change to create a more inclusive, sustainable and forward-looking Europe. A former Brussels Correspondent of the Financial Times, Merritt is a journalist, author and broadcaster who has specialised in the study and analysis of EU public policy issues since 1978. In 2010 Giles Merritt was named by the Financial Times as one of the 30 most influential “Eurostars” who most influence thinking on Europe’s future. His latest book is “Slippery Slope - Europe's Troubled Future”, published last year by Oxford University Press.
- Mr Merritt, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said recently that Europeans must take their destiny into their own hands. What is the intended political echo of this statement?
- We can’t tell exactly what she meant, but it is clearly intended to be a warning to Trump that we Europeans are not going to sit and be disregarded and insulted. But what this actually means in hard political terms is very unclear, and I think deliberately unclear. It was meant as a general warning, not as a specific threat.
- Can Europe cope with the terrorist menace while the attacks are becoming more and more insolent, as the recent bloody incidents in London and Manchester show?
- I don't think we should be panicked into thinking that attacks are getting worse. The trend over the last 30-40 years has been less and less terrorism, not more and more. And that is particularly true for the last 10 years since the London bombings in July 2005. The nature of terrorism has changed, of course. Forty years ago, terrorism was about separatism – as in Ireland and Spain, although in Germany it was a bit different. That has all gone away. Now there are isolated jihadist terrorists, but they only seem to be getting worse. I think European governments are doing a good job on counter-terrorism. It’s very difficult, obviously, to combat this sort of emotional terrorism by young Muslims who have been told that they are in a war with Western society. But I think we shouldn’t give in to the idea that things are getting worse. They are not. But that doesn’t mean we should relax our counter-terrorism efforts. At the same time, to be realistic about it - it’s not upsetting Western society.
- Are Brexit and the US under Trump really threatening the traditional Western alliance, the other warning aired from Berlin, and what about Trump’s vow to end German car sales in the US?
- Let's start with German car sales. Two-thirds of the 800,000 German cars sold last year in America were made in America. German factories in America that employ American workers make two-thirds of the Mercedes, Volkswagens and Audis that Americans buy. So, it’s a silly argument from Mr Trump, as usual. Regarding the traditional Western alliance – I don’t think that it's in danger. I think Mr Trump’s attitude on NATO has become more realistic and Defence Secretary James Mattis has managed to persuade Trump to shut up about NATO. My 'Frankly Speaking' article this week says that in a way Trump is right to criticise the Western allies; not because they don’t spend enough on defence, but because they don’t spend on the right things. If Trump is going to be critical, maybe that will wake up the European NATO allies to be more effective and to bring their defences into the 21st century, because a lot of it is old-fashioned.
- Are there grounds for concern that Trump didn’t explicitly endorse the mutual defence commitment - Article 5 of NATO, and should his call for European allies to fairly share defence costs be perceived as some kind of a transatlantic rift?
- I don’t think so. We have to be realistic about Donald Trump. He is very much a lonely voice in international politics. It’s true that he represents a form of very basic and uneducated thinking in the US. But I don’t think he represents a major shift in the way governments and policy makers across the Atlantic think about each other, and I don’t think there is a rift in the Transatlantic relationship. Donald Trump does represent a sort of tension that exists and as I said, in a way he is right to criticise some of the inertia in defence thinking in Europe, but I don’t see this as a rift.
- Does Europe need to transfer more powers to Brussels as to forge its own path?
- I have to say that my own personal prejudice is that we do need to reform the European Union and possibly increase the EU’s powers, especially Eurozone governance mechanisms. What we are perhaps beginning to see are the first signs of a new and more progressive mood on European cooperation. Donald Trump deserves some of the credit for this, and I think Brexit is also an important factor. Continental European countries have realised that we can’t let Brexit, which is unfortunate and wrong headed, destroy the credibility of the European Union and make us forget its achievements. It seems very easy to forget these; first of all, no more war – that’s the obvious one. Secondly, 40 years of social as well as economic progress. And then the EU’s enlargement, something the central and eastern European countries profited from very strongly. It was the most courageous and farsighted decision, after the Berlin Wall came down, to bring countries from Eastern and Central Europe, some of which had been held back by communist regimes, into reunited Europe. Yes, we have huge problems in front of us, but we mustn’t lose sight of the achievements of the European Union.
Europe doesn’t need to transfer more powers to Brussels as to forge its own path. All it needs to do is to show determination and we are seeing that right now. I think Mr Trump and Brexit are both catalysts creating a new sense of European unity.
- What was behind Donald Trump’s decision to pull the US, the world’s second-largest producer of carbon dioxide, out of the international Paris climate agreement?
- Trump's thinking is a mystery, but most striking result of his bizarre decision is the way he has divided opinion in America itself. A number of states and cities are clearly saying, “We don’t care what the White House's view is, we at state or city level will continue to abide by the limitations and the standards agreed at the COP21 summit.” I think that’s very striking, and I also suspect that we are going to see before long a new climate summit in which countries will not only reaffirm their commitment to the Paris agreement but will actually come up with new and stricter environmental controls.
- What of the 'Debating Europe' comments on the topic so far impressed you most?
- I guess some of the current debates, like the one going on about Trump's withdrawal from the Paris Treaty, are producing very interesting comments, but my overall thinking about 'Debating Europe' is not about specific comments. It’s about the whole phenomenon of 'Debating Europe'. I think it’s incredible that ‘Debating Europe’ has 3 million people who have been taking part over the last 4-5 years. It is a very unusual for a think tank to have such a widespread debate amongst voters, amongst people who don’t normally get to air their views, and that is a major contribution that Friends of Europe is making to the discussion. I keep saying to my colleagues - let’s have more and more debates. We have also launched ‘Debating Germany’ and we are looking at other examples of doing similar things, maybe in Africa, maybe in the Middle East, maybe more internationally. It’s very important that think tanks become part of the information revolution.
- Some analysts believe that there is a chance Brexit will not happen? Is that a possibility, according to you?
- Ask me after the UK's June 8 general election. I think it is very interesting the way that the British government under Theresa May and her Tory Party, have been losing support over the last few weeks. Nobody knows what this election will produce but if there is not a clear majority in the Parliament, in the House of Commons, then it is possible that the anti-Brexit parties like the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party will hold the balance of power, and that they will start to try to limit and even reverse Brexit. I’m hoping that’s the case, but I have to say one thing – I think the EU has played the British situation very badly. As somebody who is British myself, I warned people in Brussels right from the start, almost a year ago: “Don’t penalise the British, don’t get into a conflict, there is nothing that unites the British more than conflict!” If instead you deal with the British in a very understanding and gentle way, even a sorrowful way, then we can make progress on what is clearly a very bad and shortsighted referendum decision. “But don’t get into a fight with the British!” They didn’t take note of this, and have got into a fight with the result that pro-Brexit opinion, according to the opinion polls, has actually been growing in last few weeks, while the number of people in favour of staying in the EU has shrunk dramatically. I’m hoping that the election will produce a situation in which Brexit can be softened or even reversed, but I’m not at all convinced that is going to happen.
- PM May again voiced her stance that no deal is better than a bad deal on Brexit. What will happen if Britain leaves without an agreement?
- That is empty rhetoric. If Theresa May believes that, she should not be Prime Minister, or in politics at all, because politics is about taking wise decisions in the best interests of everybody in the country. No deal on Brexit would be economic suicide. The idea of trucks queuing up on both sides of the English Channel and that there will be new customs checks, tariffs, inspectors – is totally ludicrous. Coming back to what I was saying about the British, once they sense a foreign enemy, they will line up behind even the most stupid ideas. And no deal on Brexit is by far the most stupid idea I’ve heard for a long, long time.
- Should the way ahead be a deepening of European integration, and if so what new role should the Franco-German partnership have in this process?
- According to the opinion polls, when France's parliamentary elections are held in mid-June, Macron's growing Republic En Marche! party will have a substantial presence in the National Assembly, and that will enable him to really move ahead in partnership with Germany. I think there is already a very optimistic mood in Brussels that we can expect to see the Franco-German locomotive back on the rails and steaming ahead. I can see areas where Germany and France won’t find it easy, but I can also see that it is in the interest of both Berlin and Paris to really get things moving to cooperate, to create greater consensus among the other 25 EU countries.
- Does Macron's meeting with Russian President Putin signal the opening of a new page in Franco-Russian relations, after they so badly deteriorated in the last three years?
- I think France is coming to life as a European player after a long sleep. And what I hope is that Macron’s initiative of meeting Vladimir Putin at Versailles is not just about France and Russia, but about Russia and Europe. My feeling is that we have demonised Russia. Russia has behaved very clumsily. I think Putin has derived much popular support from being a 'tough guy'. Russians love their leaders to be ‘tough guys’ whether it is Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Stalin or Vladimir Putin. But Russia’s interests and Europe’s interests are pretty similar. We have the same security problems with Islamic militancy, we have the same joint interest in an energy relationship. Where I think Russia has made a big mistake is playing out a sort of new ‘cold war’ over Ukraine. Europe has also created the Ukraine standoff. If we can put all that behind us and if we can start to collaborate on defusing the Ukraine crisis, if we can start to talk more sensibly about stabilising the Arab world, especially Syria, if we can start to talk much more seriously about getting the Russian economy moving again, that’s in everybody’s interest. So far we’ve seen far too much sabre-rattling on both sides, far too much political conflict. If Macron can start to tackle that problem and get the support of Poland and the Baltic states, and he already has the support of Germany, then perhaps we can gently calm the situation with the Russians. That I think will be in everybody’s interest. Not long ago, talking at a conference in Vilnius I was saying our security problem is not Russia, but Africa, and to some extent the Middle East. Our security threat will be the doubling of the African population over the next 30 years and the huge migratory pressure that creates, with people moving North to find a better life and a job. We should focus much more attention on stabilising Africa and reducing conflicts in the Middle East.