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The answer to 'America First' is 'Europe United'

June 13, 2018

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has called for greater EU integration and "ambition" after Donald Trump's perceived undermining of trans-Atlantic ties at the G7. The bloc is facing challenges from inside and out.

Heiko Maas
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/G. Fischer

Germany has responded to US President Donald Trump's egotistic policy of 'America First' by calling on the European Union to "bundle its strength" and show more courage — continuing the more bellicose German rhetoric that followed the US decision last week to withdraw from a G7 statement.

"Under President Trump, the Atlantic has got wider," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Wednesday, standing at a podium emblazoned with the hashtag #EuropeUnited. "Where the US administration overtly calls our values and interests into question, we certainly need to take a more robust stance."

During the speech, delivered to a room full of young Europeans at the Pulse of Europe event in Berlin, Maas slammed Trump's willingness to undermine alliances that had developed over decades "in the time it takes to write a tweet."

Read more: US-German conflicts - what you need to know

"It was a more surprising tone for a German foreign minister to take," said Jonathan Hackenbroich, analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). "He said it himself in the speech: He never thought he would make such a speech at some point, especially on trans-Atlantic relations."

The answer that Maas, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), offered should be a "radical closing of ranks" with France, though at the same time the two biggest EU countries had to be careful not to appear as a "headmaster" to the other members of the European Union. On the issue of migration, he acknowledged that Berlin had sometimes appeared to be "wagging its finger" at Eastern European member states.

G7 Merkel Trump
Trump and Merkel were at odds throughout the G7 summit in CanadaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

Some integration proposals

The EU needed to do more than just "adjust a couple of screws in the Brussels apparatus," the bloc must "change its own mentality," Maas said, not least because the times were becoming "radicalized by nationalism, populism and chauvinism."

"We need more Europe, not less Europe, especially now," he said.

Echoing his SPD colleagues, Maas also said it was vital to keep the EU's internal border open and free — even while protecting the external borders. "For much too long we have left Italy and Greece alone with these tasks," he said.

This could have been read as a swipe at his conservative cabinet colleague, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, who is currently stuck in a tense stand-off with Chancellor Angela Merkel over a plan to turn asylum seekers away at the German border.

Horst Seehofer CSU) and Angela Merkel (CDU)
Merkel wants the EU to be more united on migration, but first she has to get Seehofer in lineImage: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld

Too little too late?

Germany and France have already floated a few ideas for closer European integration, such as a financial transaction tax, which would give the EU a chance to collect taxes directly for the first time.

On Wednesday, Maas also expressed support for the idea of an EU minimum wage, as a way of combating youth unemployment levels in Mediterranean member states, as well as equalizing corporate taxes across the bloc to reduce tax havens and unfair tax incentives.

Read more: Macron and Merkel present competing EU reform proposals

But, as Hackenbroich pointed out, none of these ideas were new or especially radical, given the vehemence of Maas' rhetoric. "The recommendations, I thought, still don't live up to the analysis and the conclusions of the analysis," he told DW.

The election in Italy, and the ascension of a populist government in Rome, has put renewed internal pressure on the EU, and Hackenbroich wondered whether the proposals would make much difference to that corrosive, anti-EU tendency. "Maas can't be blamed for it, but for various reasons this response probably should have come several months before the Italian election," he said. "It's much harder now to keep Europe together and maintain a common message."

Hackenbroich also noted that Maas actually went further than Merkel in his proposal — though he failed to mention the big sticking point that Macron's speech brought up — beefing up the European Stability Mechanism. "He was following Macron's lead," he said. "He was coming at it from a foreign policy perspective, whereas the chancellor always comes at it from a financial responsibility perspective."

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight