Merkel drops reference to America as 'friend' in new party program
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is comfortably ahead in her re-election contest with socialist rival Martin Schultz. Her center right coalition of Christian Democrats and Bavarians leads the socialists 38%-24% with two and a half months to go before the September 24 election.
This is a far cry from polls taken at the beginning of this year when the two were neck and neck and the nationalist Alternative for Germany party (AfP) polling an astonishing 15%.
But Merkel is no fool of a politician. What was dragging her popularity down was her open door policy for Middle Eastern and African migrants. more than a million of whom had entered Germany. That policy resulted in a surge for the nationalists, threatening her re-election chances.
So Merkel decided to take the sting out of AfP's criticisms and altered German refugee policy. Not only did she severely restrict new arrivals, she also initiated a review of those refugees claiming asylum. The change in policy worked. AfP support has dropped to 8% and Merkel finds herself in the electoral driver's seat.
So it came as no surprise when her coalition's party program, published yesterday, downplayed Germany's close relationship with the US. Gone is any reference to America as a "friend" of Germany. Instead, the substitution "partner" was used.
Four years ago, the joint program of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), referred to the United States as Germany's "most important friend" outside of Europe.
The 2013 program also described the "friendship" with Washington as a "cornerstone" of Germany's international relations and talked about strengthening transatlantic economic ties through the removal of trade barriers.
But the words "friend" and "friendship" are missing from the latest election program - entitled "For a Germany in which we live well and happily" - which Merkel and CSU leader Horst Seehofer presented on Monday ahead of a Sept. 24 election.
Instead, the United States is described as Germany's "most important partner" outside of Europe. CDU officials were not immediately available to comment on the change in wording.
The change in wording underscores how relations between Berlin and Washington have deteriorated since U.S. President Donald Trump entered the White House in January.
During his campaign for the presidency, Trump said that Merkel was "ruining" Germany with migration policies he described as "insane".
He has repeatedly denounced Germany's trade surplus with the United States, accused Berlin and other European partners of owing "massive amounts of money" to NATO, and unsettled western partners with his decision last month to pull out of the Paris climate accord..
A survey by the Pew Research Center last week showed that just 35 percent of Germans have a favorable view of the United States, down from 57 percent at the end of President Barack Obama's term.
Merkel is due to host Trump and other leaders at a G20 summit in Hamburg later this week.
In place of the 2013 passage about strengthening economic ties, the 2017 program refers to historical U.S. support for Germany after World War Two and in the run-up to German reunification.
The new CDU/CSU election program also repeats a line that Merkel used in a speech in Munich in late May after a difficult summit of G7 leaders, where Trump resisted pressure from six other nations to stay in the Paris agreement.
"The times in which we could fully rely on others are, to a certain extent, in the past. We Europeans must take our fate into our own hands more decisively than we have in the past," the program reads.
How significant is this? Germany can call us anything they wish, but the bottom line is they need us a heckuva lot more than we need them. Merke;'s ploy has more to do with the toxicity of Trump's name among more moderate German voters who form the core of her support, than any real downgrading of our relationship.
But Merkel's dissing the US is not without risk. The chancellor needs a sizable number of nationalists' votes in order to win an outright victory and avoid a messy election aftermath where she would need to bargain with smaller parties to gain a majority in the Bundestag. The AfP agrees with Trump - at least about immigration and the EU - and might not take kindly to the slight against him.
Merkel figures she gains more by disrespecting the American president and America than she would otherwise. It seems a sensible gamble and will probably play out as she believes it will.