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Neglected relationship

Petra DolataAugust 15, 2012

After her summer break, Angela Merkel made her first bilateral visit to Canada. Ties between Berlin and Ottawa are robust, but the relationship could change from one of benign neglect to a more troubled friendship.

Canadian parliament buildings, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
Image: picture-alliance/Bilderbuch

Petra Dolata is a lecturer in international politics with a special focus on Canada at King’s College in London.

The German official agenda for the visit listed German-Canadian relations, current foreign policy issues and bilateral economic and scientific cooperation as the main topics of the high-level talks.

The Canadian side was more specific. Trade and investment as well as peace and security particularly in the Middle East and North Africa are on Ottawa's list. And, of course, the euro crisis is on everyone's mind.

Petra Dolata, King's College, London
Canada specialist Petra DolataImage: privat

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper himself explained: "As Canada and the European Union work to conclude free trade negotiations, I look forward to a wide-ranging discussion with Chancellor Merkel on the challenges facing the global economy."

Trade deal

Not surprisingly then, many observers expected the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) and the euro crisis to dominate the bilateral talks.

This focus already indicates one main characteristic of the bilateral German-Canadian relationship: it is embedded in larger, multilevel frameworks, in this case the relationship between the EU and Canada. In terms of peace and security that framework is NATO. The G8, G20 and UN are further examples.

Thus, as the Canadian newspaper Globe and Mail maintains, Harper's interest lies more in Europe than Germany but he hopes that Merkel can help him keep his promise that the EU and Canada finally reach an agreement on CETA by the end of this year.

After nine rounds of negotiations there remain unresolved issues including intellectual property rights. This could prove a stumbling block as these regulations sound very much like those that have recently been rejected by the European Parliament. Since the remaining two negotiations rounds are conducted on the highest political level Harper now relies on Merkel and Germany.

That the Canadian prime minister should count on German support points toward another characteristic of the bilateral relationship.

Overshadowed relationship

Overall, both countries share general assumptions about international politics and economics. The two countries do not tire of stressing their shared values and interests and insist that they are friends and partners in the world.

However, this partnership is overshadowed by the more important one that each of them has with the United States. As a result, the transatlantic German-Canadian friendship, while robust, rather functions in the background. This also means that neither Canada nor Germany figure prominently in the other country's public discussions on international politics.

Media coverage remains rather limited. When Germans think about Canada it is quite often as a holiday destination renowned for its nature.

Increasing dissonances

So, is Merkel's visit simply one of old friends who have not quite followed what the other did over the past years but whose friendship is still based on common interests and values? Not quite.

There have been a number of dissonances in the recent past that point toward possible long-term structural changes in the relationship. While both Canada and Germany are NATO allies and despite agreements over general missions there has been some incomprehension on the Canadian side about Germany's role in Afghanistan and Libya.

In terms of economic policies, Harper agrees with the general line of Merkel but he openly criticized her for rejecting measures such as issuing euro bonds or a banking union. And like the United States, Canada rejected to fund the IMF bailout for Europe.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Germany also seems to be disillusioned with Canada. Ottawa's withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol last year, the ongoing discussions about environmental problems relating to the oil sands in Alberta and construction of an oil pipeline to the United States have played a major role in this.

Different regional focus

Interests and values can diverge as the world changes. Canada is now an energy producer and Germany a consumer, the same applies to raw materials.

Merkel's problems are located in Europe and Germany.

The transatlantic relationship does not offer solutions to the euro crisis and domestic challenges.

And as Canada looks towards Asia and the emerging markets of Brazil and India, the relationship could transform from one of benign neglect to a more troubled friendship.

Gone are the days when the heads of Germany and Canada met in the summer and holiday together as Helmut Schmidt and Pierre Trudeau did.

Merkel's holidays are over.