Much has been said about Donald Trump’s having left his successor Joe Biden with last-minute foreign policy decisions that would preempt the new president’s own priorities. But who would have guessed that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who welcomed Trump’s replacement by the more like-minded Biden, would do the same thing?
Take Biden’s possible efforts to change US and global trade terms with China. He wanted to consult with the European Union and other allies and move in concert. Instead, Merkel moved quickly to sign a new trade and investment deal with China in the name of the EU.
Negotiations had been going on for seven years, but both Merkel and China’s President Xi Jinping wanted it done before Biden took office on January 20. Even a top Biden aide had openly asked Merkel to wait.
On December 22, Biden’s national security advisor asked European allies to delay any big dealings with China until they held “early consultations” with the new administration over “our common concerns about China’s economic practices.” His request was ignored.
And make no mistake, this was an agreement pushed largely by Merkel. Among EU national leaders, only France’s Emmanuel Macron was on the Zoom call that was the backdrop for announcing the deal.
That the EU has become a Germany-First fig leaf was also evident in the lack of open debate within the EU itself, where the commissioner, Ursula von der Leyen, is German, as is the group’s trade department director Sabine Weyand.
Since the deal was struck, Biden’s team has remained quiet, but not so European leaders. Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau complained in a tweet, “We need more consultations and transparency bringing our transatlantic allies on board. A good, balanced deal is better than a premature one.”
Several countries expressed concern that the China deal was a gift to Xi at a time when he has destroyed Hong Kong’s democratic autonomy and stands accused of overseeing vast repression of China’s Muslim minority Uighur population, including the alleged operation of concentration camps and slave labor.
“Well, we give China a credit signal at a time of major human rights concerns,” said Italy’s Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs Ivan Scalfarotto.
American commentators blamed Trump for the EU’s rush into China’s embrace. Merkel’s own suggestion that the US can no longer be trusted plays into that argument. But that stand suggests Germany has no other national interests–such as, in particular, buttressing its own economy.
Germany is the largest EU exporter to China in both absolute and relative terms. German exports to China topped €110 billion (US$134 billion) in 2018, equal to 7% of all German exports.
German companies lead the EU in investment inside China, worth €76 billion, or half of the entire EU’s total. The Germans are heavily investing in producing electric cars in China.
The trade deal was not the only German decision that makes problems for Biden. Merkel’s cabinet also approved a measure to allow Huawei, China’s controversial telecom giant, to participate in Germany’s 5G mobile phone network.
The US, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Taiwan have decided to ban and phase out the company’s products within their 5G mobile networks. The United Kingdom cut Huawei’s share in its new network to 35%. Merkel resisted advice even from Germany’s own intelligence services in making the decision.
Two months before the American election, Merkel also rejected another Trump administration request: to stop the undersea gas pipeline from Russia directly to Germany.
Trump, along with several Eastern European states, objected on the grounds that the pipeline, known as Nord Stream 2, would leave European countries that border Russia, especially Ukraine, vulnerable to natural gas blackmail.
Russia could cut supplies to former Warsaw Pact and Soviet republics including Ukraine and the Balkan states without upsetting Berlin.
Nonetheless, Merkel gave the go-ahead to completing the project, which was expected to reach German shores this year.
The pipeline still faced at least one obstacle: The US Congress had passed a measure in its latest defense budget to sanction any company taking part in the construction. Germany reacted furiously.
“We do not need to talk about European sovereignty if that is understood as us doing everything in future the way Washington wants us to,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in late December.
Biden officials have said the US will lift sanctions if Europe – meaning Germany – suspends construction while Biden tries to halt it definitively or find some other solution.
The mostly Russian government-owned gas giant Gazprom, which stands to benefit most from the pipeline, has announced that the project might have to be suspended.
On Sunday, however, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline company announced that the Russian pipe-laying ship Fortuna had resumed construction work on the remaining few miles of pipeline offshore of Denmark.
In short, Merkel’s “Germany First” policies are running into yet unclear Biden ideas about US attitudes toward Russia and China – and the future of relations with Germany.
With Merkel’s time in office short, it will likely be her successor who decides on how close Germany’s future ties are to the US.
Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.