The end of one year and the beginning of a new year offers the opportunity to reflect on the past and to consider what might lie ahead. In the context of the transatlantic relationship, there is a great deal of history to draw upon – and much to anticipate as we think about the coming year.
Thirty years ago in June, President Ronald Reagan made his famous speech in West Berlin imploring the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, to “tear down this wall!” that had divided West and East Berlin since 1961. Next month will mark the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Maastricht Treaty, which set the stage for greater political integration and launched Europe’s economic and monetary union. And, 15 years ago, on January 1, 2002, Europe’s “single currency” – the euro – was introduced as legal tender in the 12 EU member states that make up the eurozone.
Although the ultimate fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of Communism, the opening of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet space, as well as the seeming integration of Europe gave cause for bounding optimism concerning Europe’s future, developments over the past two years offer a different reality. Russia’s smoldering conflict with Ukraine on Europe’s eastern flank, the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union, as well as the continuing euro crisis, mass migration, and a breakdown of the Schengen Agreement on the Continent all contribute to unease about the future of Europe.
With their own national elections slated for September, many Germans are concerned about political developments elsewhere earlier in the year. What will President Donald Trump’s foreign policy look like? When will Prime Minister Theresa May trigger Article 50 of the EU treaty that allows EU member states to leave the EU – and what will the timeline for Brexit look like? Will a populist far-right party win the election in Holland in March? Will Marine Le Pen win the Presidential election in May and take steps to lead France out of the European Union and the euro?
Many Germans have expressed concern about President-elect Trump and uncertainty about America’s future role on the world stage. Outside observers can gain some insights about the incoming Trump administration from his Cabinet appointments and the confirmation hearings that will begin soon. Two weeks from today, President Trump’s Inaugural Address will provide an important blueprint for what he hopes to achieve during his time in office. And, roughly a month later, he will present a budget to Congress. This will flesh out his plans and priorities. There is no doubt that candidate Trump ran a disruptive campaign, and there is reason to believe that the transition of power in Washington will be disruptive. But, the coming weeks and months will offer much deeper insights into the kind of President Donald Trump will be.
In Germany, three state elections this spring will serve as bellwethers for the Bundestag election in the fall. With six political parties vying for power and the traditional Volksparteien – the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats – losing traction, it will be interesting to see how the Greens, the socialist Left Party, the liberal Free Democrats, and the populist right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) will fare on the state level.
In late November, Angela Merkel announced that she would run for a fourth term in office. Her re-election would be significant for the large part of the electorate that is looking for stability and a steady hand in uncertain times after the Brexit vote, the election of Donald Trump, and the rise of populist movements in several European countries. Chancellor Merkel had acknowledged that this would be a tough campaign – but the terrorist attack on a Christmas market in Berlin in late December may make her re-election even more difficult than she had anticipated. Germany’s vulnerability was exposed when a truck rammed into holiday revelers. In her New Year’s address, Chancellor Merkel said that the biggest challenge facing Germany is Islamist terrorism. The steps she and her government take may be critical in shaping public opinion.
Europe’s integration has been considered one of the world’s greatest success stories. For more than 70 years, Europe has enjoyed unprecedented peace and prosperity. As the American Council on Germany gets ready to celebrate its 65th anniversary this year, it is worth remembering that the ACG has been an important interlocutor since the end of World War II. It has brought together opinion leaders and decision-makers from business, politics, the media, and academia from both sides of the Atlantic, and it has developed new generations of transatlanticists by creating fora for dialogue. The ACG will continue to serve as a catalyst for building mutual understanding – and in uncertain times this is more important than ever.