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Trump’s Swipes at Germany, Putin Outreach Pleases Europe’s 'Awkward Squad'


U.S. President Donald Trump meets with German Chancellor Angela Merkel during the NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium, July 11, 2018.

President Donald Trump doubled down Tuesday on his long-running criticism of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, saying in a television interview her immigration policies have been a disaster for Europe.

“Angela used to be a superstar until she allowed millions of people to come into Germany,” he said. His remarks follow a summit-shaking outburst last week during which the U.S. president criticized Germany for relying on cheap Russian energy supplies, while expecting America to continue to help protect Europe.

His interview comments Tuesday on Fox News and his public swipe at last week’s NATO summit are part of an unrelenting series of harshly critical remarks targeting Germany, which also have included Trump complaining about the trade surplus the Germans run with America.

FILE - Volkswagen cars are pictured as they undergo a final quality control at the Volkswagen plant in Wolfsburg, Germany, March 8, 2018.
FILE - Volkswagen cars are pictured as they undergo a final quality control at the Volkswagen plant in Wolfsburg, Germany, March 8, 2018.

Trump’s gripes are prompting growing consternation in Berlin — but not uniformly across Europe. The U.S. president’s criticism is seconded by some of Germany’s near neighbors.

The country’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, cast the Trump administration Sunday as an adversary, saying Germany could “no longer rely on the White House.” And Atlanticists in Europe fear he’s right, contending the growing rift between Berlin and Washington is an additional threat to strained transatlantic relations.

FILE - German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas waves upon his arrival to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meets in Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank, March 26, 2018.
FILE - German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas waves upon his arrival to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meets in Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank, March 26, 2018.

“It threatens not only the Atlantic alliance, but the West itself,” argued British commentator Daniel Johnson in Britain’s Times newspaper.

Populist nationalists

But there’s quiet approval of Trump’s targeting of Germany by Europe’s so-called “awkward squad” of central European states led by populist nationalists. They see themselves as ideological bedfellows of Donald Trump, favoring a curtailing of multilateralism, like he does, which they say is undermining the sovereign rights of nation states.

While some populists — especially the Poles — have their doubts about the U.S. president’s overtures to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, they, too, have their gripes with Merkel and have not been leaping to her defense in the face of the onslaught of U.S. criticism. And they have been echoing the same complaints of Germany.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel shake hands following a joint news conference in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, May 18, 2018.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel shake hands following a joint news conference in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, May 18, 2018.

While much of the international media coverage of last week’s tumultuous NATO summit focused on U.S.-European divisions over the level of European defense spending and the poor combat readiness of European armed forces, some diplomats say the widening rift between Germany and its near neighbors is every bit as serious as the one emerging between Trump and Europe as a whole.

And the two are linked, according to analysts, with Trump emboldening populist leaders in Europe and vice versa. This week, the leader of Italy’s Lega party, Matteo Salvini, praised Trump’s summit meeting with Putin, saying the Helsinki summit was a “wonderful start.”

With the exception of the Polish government, the populist leaders of Central Europe favor the lifting of sanctions on Russia imposed by the West after the Kremlin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. It is just one of the disputes between Germany and the "awkward squad" of populists, who are busy trying to fashion a new Eurosceptic alliance in Brussels to increase their limited clout in the bloc and to counter German-French dominance.

FILE - French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel attend a news conference following talks on European Union integration, defense and migration at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Aug. 28, 2017.
FILE - French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel attend a news conference following talks on European Union integration, defense and migration at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Aug. 28, 2017.

They are at odds over the future of the European Union, and they accuse Berlin of throwing its economic weight around and marginalizing them when it comes to European Union decision-making and economic governance. The disagreements have pushed relations between the Visegrad states of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary to a new low. And relations between Merkel’s Germany and Austria, led by 32-year-old populist Sebastian Kurz, have become strained, too.

Ideological divide

German officials and analysts had always expected Trump and Merkel would never hit it off — she is painstakingly disciplined and patient, favors continuity and predictability, and she is visibly frustrated by the freewheeling Trump’s disregard for diplomatic niceties. But underpinning the confrontation is an ideological divide.

Writing more than a year ago, analysts Ulrike Esther Franke and Mark Leonard of the European Council on Foreign Relations predicted Germany would be cast as the “main enemy” by the Trump administration because of the German trade surplus with the U.S., along with Merkel’s championing of globalization and free trade and observance of multilateralism.

They also noted: “The ‘alt-right’ ideologues in Trump’s entourage loathe Germany for its refugee policy,” which they see as betrayal of Europe’s Judeo-Christian foundation.”

That view is shared by Hungarian leader Viktor Orban, who has described Muslim asylum seekers as “Muslim invaders.”

While some populists — especially the Poles — have their doubts about the U.S. president’s overtures to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, they, too, have their gripes with Merkel and have not been leaping to her defense in the face of the onslaught of U.S. criticism. And they have been echoing the same complaints of Germany.

FILE - Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto attends an interview with Reuters in Budapest, Hungary, Sept. 12, 2017.
FILE - Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto attends an interview with Reuters in Budapest, Hungary, Sept. 12, 2017.

Earlier this year his foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, while on a visit to Washington, noted in a newspaper interview, “Some Western European countries would like to enter into a phase which can be described more with the description ‘post-Christian,’ ‘post-national.’ But we don’t want that. …You know, Europe’s supposed to be a Christian continent.”

FILE - Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, left, greets German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a breakfast meeting at an EU summit in Brussels, Friday, June 29, 2018.
FILE - Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, left, greets German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a breakfast meeting at an EU summit in Brussels, Friday, June 29, 2018.

Orban has led the V-4 group’s sabotage of a Brussels plan for migrants to be shared across the EU. Hungary’s liberal-turned-conservative nationalist leader has made no effort to disguise his overall aim of reshaping the EU by reducing the power of the institutions in Brussels and returning it to national governments.

The unfolding populist challenge in Europe has received the open encouragement of the Trump administration — from the U.S. president’s frequent criticism of the migration policies favored by Chancellor Merkel and Brussels to a declaration in June by the U.S. envoy to Germany. Richard Grenell said he sees his mission as empowering populists in Europe and political factions that are in tune with Trump’s Washington.

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