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Opinion

Opinion: Merkel's EU speech couldn't help but highlight the power of nationalism

As her speech to lawmakers showed, Merkel is among the leading advocates for the European Union. But DW's Jefferson Chase says even the German chancellor is subject to the pull of nationalism that could undo the EU.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's governmental declaration on Thursday could be summarized as: Talk back against Turkey, ignore Trump and wait and see on Theresa May.

The purpose of the chancellor's speech was to lay out Germany's position ahead of what will be a particularly important European Union summit in Rome on March 25, 2017. But Merkel devoted a major portion of her address to a primarily domestic issue: comparisons made by ranking members of the Turkish government, as well as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, between the Federal Republic of Germany and the Nazi regime.

The comparisons, as Merkel rightly said, are almost too ridiculous and childish to merit commentary. The fact that Merkel then commented on them - at length - underscores how emotional national topics remain in the era of globalization. That is the EU's - and by extension Merkel's - biggest problem.

Coming to terms with nationalist tendencies

Despite Merkel's opening paean to the EU as a "unique success story" and a guarantor of European peace and prosperity, right-wing populism is threatening to rip the union apart at its seams, its national borders. There is no consensus on how to address the influx of refugees and migrants, voters in the United Kingdom elected to give up on the European Union entirely, and many people fear that anti-EU populists will win or achieve significant power in upcoming elections in France, the Netherlands and Germany itself.

Chase Jefferson Kommentarbild App

Jefferson Chase is a DW political correspondent

Merkel wants to buck that trend. With only the briefest verbal nod toward US President Donald Trump's criticisms of Washington's NATO allies, Merkel pushed for expanded EU responsibility for European security, particularly with reference to the Balkans. And she only mentioned the Brexit toward the very end of her address, saying - more or less - that nothing could be said until Theresa May's government officially applied to leave the bloc. It was almost as if she were hoping that the British might come to their senses at the last second.

But while Merkel stressed the positives, she and the EU face a number of thorny situations. She can't hit back at Erdogan and Ankara as much as she would probably like to because she needs the EU-Turkey refugee deal to reduce the number of migrants arriving in Europe and - she can hope - keep populist nationalists at bay. Moreover, her calls for an expanded role for the EU-27 in response to Trump's isolationist tendencies fly in the face of the skepticism, and even hostility, toward the union apparent among many Europeans.

Markel's trademarked measured calm alone cannot erase the deep national divisions within Europe. Those attending the EU summit are meant to be preparing for a celebration of the 60th anniversary of the treaties establishing the European Economic Community. That party will come at a time when nationalists are calling for the EU to be scaled back to those original dimensions - or even be eradicated entirely.

Merkel showed in her address to Germany's parliament that she's a vigorous advocate of a united Europe, and Germany's position going into the Rome summit will be that a strong EU is good for everybody. But Merkel has to be aware that lots of Europeans, maybe the majority, want less EU and not more. Nationalist sentiments have been on the rise - she couldn't even keep them out of her own speech on her own policy. And those may be the sort of feelings that could prove the EU's ultimate undoing.

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