German chancellor Angela Merkel carries a huge, perhaps historic burden into her first meeting with Donald Trump on Friday. As the de facto leader of the 28-nation European Union, she faces a task that’s never been considered necessary before: defending the union’s continued existence to a skeptical US president. It’s probably in her own domestic political interests, and undoubtedly in the world’s interests, that she succeed.
For decades, American leaders of both parties have pushed hard for European unity. If the 20th century taught anything, it’s that European problems eventually metastasize into American problems. And when they do, the price is catastrophic, as the American military graveyards across the continent attest. NATO, the military alliance, and the European Union, the political organization, embody the shared European and American goal of a stable, peaceful, prosperous continent.
Trump, though, seems to find fault with those accomplishments, for no clearly articulated reason. He broke with longstanding US policy by supporting the British exit from the EU. He’s expressed an alarming distaste for NATO, an organization he once dismissed as obsolete. According to news reports, his White House wants to deal with Europe on a country-by-country basis. The president’s political adviser, Steve Bannon, seems to bear a special grudge against the EU. If the administration’s hostility to the union turns out to be a real policy, rather than a sullen tweet in passing, it would be a huge and backward shift.
That prospect is what makes the meeting so consequential; it will set the tone for the next four years and maybe beyond. “It’s probably the most important visit between a German head and an American president since the fall of the wall,” said Karl Kaiser, a former adviser to German governments and now professor at Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. Merkel answers to voters in Germany, where elections will be held later this year. But all Europeans — and Americans — should be rooting for her to make a strong pitch for the EU’s continued relevance.
The meeting has generated advance attention for another, inescapable reason. Merkel is the world’s most powerful woman, and Trump has a history of making misogynistic comments. Merkel has also gently criticized Trump when he deserved it, for instance when he attacked the press as “enemies of the people.” As a seasoned world leader, Merkel knows how to tune out distractions and disagreements. Whether Trump is capable of the same level of maturity remains to be seen.
The EU faces headwinds, including right-wing populist movements in some member countries that blame the union for immigration and for what they perceive as the loss of national sovereignty. In Dutch elections on Wednesday, the party headed by anti-immigrant and anti-EU populist Geert Wilders appeared to come in second. Trump clearly feels some personal sympathy for those parties, whose messages sound so similar to his own. But his job now is to look out for the American people, who need a strong, united, peaceful Europe. If Merkel can deliver that message, Germany, Europe, and the United States will all benefit in the long run.