If Germany can’t count on old friends, perhaps it’s time to make new ones
It was no doubt planned many months ago, but the timing of Narendra Modi’s short tête-à-tête with Angela Merkel in Berlin on Tuesday will be interpreted as deeply symbolic in Germany and beyond. Could there be something of a pivot to Asia going on in Europe’s economic powerhouse?
The Indian prime minister arrived in Europe after what has already been something of a whirlwind few days for Germany’s chancellor.
First there was a tense Nato summit in Brussels, followed by, to use Frau Merkel’s understated phrasing, a “very difficult” G7 summit in Italy, where differences over climate change were particularly apparent.
Then on Sunday, in a Bavarian beer tent, Mrs Merkel made the remarkable pronouncement that Germany could no longer rely on its long-standing partners – for which read: Brexit-Britain and Donald Trump’s America.
It’s telling, though, that Mrs Merkel’s remarks were covered with more fanfare abroad than they were in the Germany’s domestic press, where they were largely recognised as a deft piece of electioneering.
She wants to make clear she’s as prepared as anyone else to stand up to Trump, who reiterated past criticisms on Tuesday with his tweet: “We have a MASSIVE trade deficit with Germany, plus they pay FAR LESS than they should on NATO & military. Very bad for U.S. This will change”.
But while things may have come to a head this week, Germany’s business community had already been slowly coming to the conclusion that it may – regrettably – be time to seek new friends.
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Berlin’s old partners are still of supreme importance, of course. Germany exports more to the US and UK than it does to India, China, Korea and Japan combined. And despite the warm handshakes, photo-ops and memorandums of understanding announced this week, the EU is still some distance from signing a free trade agreement with Narendra Modi’s government.
But a quick glance at the diary of Germany’s economics minister, Brigitte Zypries, or the schedules of some of the country’s largest business lobbies tell a different tale: one in which Asian economies are mentioned frequently and enthusiastically, while the US and UK are often referred to in muted, disappointed terms.
You can’t move for “Sino-German” business conferences in Berlin and Brussels these days, and large, enthusiastic Chinese delegations are a common sight at many of Germany’s famous trade fairs. The Chinese premier’s visit later this week, comes after years of concerted effort to build ties between Germany, the EU and Xi Jinping’s administration.