German carmakers and politicians are aghast at the idea that imported cars pose a threat to the United States’ national security. In a report to President Donald Trump, the American Department of Commerce said it considers German and European a danger. And now European carmakers fear Trump could use the report to justify tariffs – he has 90 days to decide how to react. Car companies may be massive corporations able to absorb many a blow but they’re already sweating lower demand from China, the vagaries of Brexit and trying to prepare for a cleaner, driverless future. They worry that this could do more than just put the brakes on.
The notion that Germany’s cars are such a danger was displeasing to Angela Merkel. Speaking at the Munich Security Conference, she called the comments horrifying. Her speech was more explicit than usual on the tense state of trans-Atlantic relations. She condemned isolationism and the struggles of international alliances and called for cooperation.
Takes on her talk vary widely. Some pundits called her speech, delivered without notes, impassioned, frank and powerful, the best she had ever given. Others accused her of playing diplomatic softball; Merkel isn’t doing enough, they say.
That range is familiar in Germany. Merkel always faces a huge breadth of interpretation here. Now that she is preparing to step off the world stage, some takes on her work are becoming kinder – look at what people were saying at the start of her career. Back then, Merkel was called a naïve girl; she’s since been named a canny plotter, Europe’s savior and the West’s destroyer. She’s somehow a combination of fiercely competent, a cunning rival and, at the same time, a beloved mother figure. It’s like a Rorschach test: what we say about Merkel tells us as much about ourselves and our fears as it does about her.
This time, though, she spoke more clearly than ever, seemingly unchained from the constraints of her post and facing the rapid deterioration of all she has fought for.
Perhaps for now at least, what’s keeping people awake at night is the fear that Washington isn’t even listening to Berlin. Though maybe it never did.
Nobody, yet, has worked out how to handle Huawei and protect fledgling 5G networks. Washington wants an outright ban on equipment from the Chinese manufacturer whereas here, as always, experts are on the fence. Foreign policy wonks and Berlin’s digerati agree with Washington because they fear widespread spying while the country’s interior ministry foresees a “kill switch” that Beijing could use to disrupt high-speed communications during strife or just at its whim. Britain, in contrast, just assessed Huawei and found it’s a “manageable risk.”
Considering the bolder Brits, is Germany right to be so angsty? Folks here are indignant at what they see as toeing Washington’s line. It’s complicated, though, with business relationships also in the balance. As the UK’s intelligence official put it, “I’m not pretending I have the answer.”
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