Worlds will collide when the cautious Merkel

By Sarah Morris - March 17, 2017

Donald Trump and Angela Merkel are both interested in walls — and they may discuss them when they meet for the first time in the White House in Washington on Friday (the trip was postponed from Tuesday because of heavy snow expected in Washington).What bonds, divides and disturbs the German and U.S. leaders is migration.

Trump’s solution, which even the president must know can only be a partial one, is to build a protective barrier separating the U.S. and Mexico. The German chancellor, in office since 2005, who in 1989 witnessed the fall of the Berlin wall first-hand as a 35-year-old functionary in East Germany’s Academy of Science, believes that walls are no answer.

This is one of the more obvious areas that may separate them at the meeting. Trump has labeled Merkel’s decision to welcome hundreds of thousands of refugees into Germany, many from Islamic countries, a “catastrophic mistake.”

Observers make much of the Trump-Merkel differences in style and substance.

There is plenty of combustible tinder: Russia, the European Union, the euro EURUSD, +0.0743%  , human rights, protectionism, the U.S. trade deficit with Germany. The president’s impetuosity stands in technicolor contrast to the chancellor’s alleged iceberg immovability. Trump awakens (bad) memories of two swashbuckling European leaders with whom Merkel had notoriously poor relations: Nicolas Sarkozy, French president from 2007-12, and Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian magnate who overlapped twice with Merkel as prime minister.

Yet stereotypes should not be taken too far. Merkel herself, for all her trademark caution, has a track record in springing surprises. Witness her politically disruptive, legally dubious 2008 unveiling of a blanket guarantee for all German retail savers’ bank deposits, or her populist U-turn against nuclear energy in 2011 after Japan’s Fukushima disaster.

For all the shared U.S.-German business, economic and security interests since the Second World War, there is no shortage of past antagonism. Chancellor Helmut Schmidt smouldered continuously in sparring with Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan during his eight-year rule. Gerhard Schröder clashed with George W. Bush over the Iraq war.

And Barack Obama had to seek help from Mario Monti as Italian premier in trying to understand Merkel — whom he famously reduced to tears in 2010 during a campaign to force Germany’s hand over financial assistance for Greece.

Merkel and Trump may find biographical congruence. Merkel, like Trump during his Republican party ascent, always appeared a highly improbable leader of Germany’s mainstream conservatives. Like the U.S. president, she has systemically demolished opposition from well-placed but less assiduous male party rivals.