GERMANY – US ambassador pals up with Bavaria’s CSU rightists

Germany’s government is seeking greater independence from Washington. But the CSU and Richard Grenell, Trump’s man in Berlin, are pledging stronger ties.

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The CSU’s special guest star. Source: AP

“No country is as close to us culturally, historically and economically.” That would normally be a welcome statement if it wasn’t coming from the draft conclusion of a meeting between the CSU, the Bavarian sister party to the ruling Christian Democrats, and Richard Grenell, Washington’s ambassador to Germany.

Mr. Grenell is among the star guests at the Christian Social Union’s two-day summit in the town of Neuhardenberg outside Berlin.

Yet as the rift between Washington and Berlin wides, the draft statement, a tribute to the United States from Germany, is viewed by many as a challenge to Chancellor Angela Merkel and her government’s search for greater independence from their traditionally close trans-Atlantic relationship.

Ever since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, Ms. Merkel and Heiko Maas, her foreign minister, have gradually, and more or less explicitly, been distancing themselves from Washington and emphasizing the growing need for European independence.

Those comments span acknowledgments of the need for greater defense spending, after repeated nudges by the US administration, to Mr. Maas’ clarion call for Europe to be more independent. While this may prove difficult to realize in practice, these moves are a tectonic shift in German-US relations. And his call last week to build a “sovereign, strong Europe” and a “balanced partnership” with the US is a historic step.

The draft closing statement for the CSU retreat openly challenges Mr. Maas’ proposal. “Europe shouldn’t become a counterweight to the US; rather, the US and Europe should together be a counterweight to those who undermine our Western values,” it said.

Bavaria under pressure

Domestically, the CSU’s relationship to the CDU is strained and the Bavarian party is under pressure ahead of an election just five weeks away. The CSU pursues a harder line on migration and Horst Seehofer, the nation’s interior minister, challenged Ms. Merkel on the issue earlier this summer, nearly triggering a governmental collapse.

The Bavarians’ decision to hold their political retreat outside their home state in an indicator of the party’s greater ambitions. While the agenda covers everything from pensions for moms to refugees, the emphasis on trans-Atlantic ties and the choice of guests are a poke in the eye for the chancellor.

Right now, the CSU desperately needs to win back constituents: The party’s ratings are falling and support for the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a party of the far right and now the second-most popular in the country, keeps growing. Recent polls suggest the populist AfD will enter Bavarian parliament for the first time in October and the CSU will lose its absolute majority. However, German elections are hard to predict.“German voters are as shy as deer,” said Gero Neugebauer, a former politics professor from Berlin’s Free University. “We don’t know how they’re going to vote.”

An advantageous relationship

The CSU’s conservatism, and desire to lure right-wing supporters away from the AfD, matches the conservative agenda of Mr. Grenell and the Republican administration in the US. In an interview last June with Breitbart News, the ambassador said he was eager to “empower European conservatives,” a comment that was seen by some as a populist affront to Ms. Merkel’s centrist government.

Mr. Grenell, once described as a “right-wing flamethrower,” is a loyalist to Mr. Trump, who has made his disdain for Europe clear. Bilateral meetings like the one in Neuhardenberg, and Mr. Grenell’s growing relationship with the CSU, appear to be part of a policy of reaching out to other conservatives in Europe.

In June, Mr. Grenell was set to meet with Austria’s Sebastian Kurz, whom he called a “rock star,” but the meeting was called off at the last minute. Mr. Grenell denied that he was endorsing particular parties or candidates in his role as ambassador, although he noted on Twitter: “I stand by my comments that we are experiencing an awakening from the silent majority – those who reject the elites & their bubble. Led by Trump.”

Attached at the hip

Although the CSU never shied away from creating its own ties abroad, from Russia to Austria, there is only so far the party can go in creating an alternative to Ms. Merkel’s foreign policies. Yes, the CSU tends rightwards on migration but the Bavarians support Europe, “as long as they get money for agriculture and industry,” Mr. Neugebauer told Handelsblatt Global. Their support, however, does not extend as far as EU expansion, or closer integration. It is even likely the CSU will likely face further divisions over Europe as it proposes Manfred Weber for the post of European Commission president.

Overall, those divisions and contradictions are given limited voice in the coalition government. It’s ultimately Ms. Merkel who determines the country’s foreign policy, with the minister’s support. And though she agrees with the analysis of a changing relationship to the US, she stopped short of supporting Mr. Maas’ call for an alternative payment system to help uphold the Iran deal.

Still, it is likely Ms. Merkel is watching the meeting near Berlin with concern, as well as Mr. Grenell’s invitation to Danish Prime Minister Lars Rasmussen, a migration hard-liner, to attend the CSU meeting. Mr. Rasmussen, like many right-wing leaders, wants to create an “axis of the willing” to challenge liberal migration policies in Europe.

While it is unclear how far the CSU will succeed in Bavaria’s election – and whether Mr. Seehofer will be able to retain his post as the country’s interior minister – the meeting could still have far-reaching consequences for Europe’s fragmenting European policy.

Allison Williams is deputy editor of Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: a.williams@handelsblattgroup.com

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