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Op-ed: Merkel faces a historic test of leadership that will shape Europe’s future after coronavirus

History rarely provides major countries and their leaders the enormity of the second chance that Germany and Chancellor Angela Merkel now enjoy as they begin their six-month European Union presidency.

For Germany, the drama is one of epic dimensions. Can the country that has been at the source of so much European devastation through two world wars, resulting in lost territory and Cold War division, steady the EU through this historic test of a public health crisis, economic recession and rising U.S.-Chinese tensions?

For Angela Merkel, who held the rotating EU presidency once before in 2007, it’s a last shot at historic legacy. Can Germany’s first and only woman chancellor, who has recharged her waning standing during the coronavirus, demonstrate the leadership required to unify and shape Europe that her critics say eluded her during almost 15 years in power.

These aren’t academic questions.

“How Europe fares in this crisis compared to other regions of the world will determine both the future of European prosperity and Europe’s role in the world,” Chancellor Merkel told the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, as she assumed the EU presidency.

In her first trip outside Germany since the coronavirus lockdown this week, she made clear the stakes stretched far beyond Covid-19. “Nobody makes it through this crisis alone,” she said. “We are all vulnerable.”

Those who know Merkel best say that what drives the uncharacteristic urgency and decisiveness of Merkel’s messages is a fear that the EU could become irrelevant or even unravel from the force of Covid-19 and its economic, social and political aftereffects. She understands the challenges for the EU are of a more existential nature than those facing China, the United States or any other single country, coming even as the United Kingdom exits the Union.

China and the U.S. will emerge from the ravages of 2020 with their borders and political systems intact, yet the 27 EU members confront more fundamental questions as their citizens weigh the value EU membership has brought them in the crisis.

“We can’t allow ourselves to be naïve,” Merkel told the European Parliament this week. “In many of the member states the opponents to Europe are waiting only to misuse this crisis for their own purposes.”

Chancellor Merkel’s efforts will come to a head next Saturday, July 17, at a special EU leaders’ summit to discuss the coronavirus recovery plan and a long-term EU budget. Never has Germany supported, as Chancellor Merkel is doing now, the pooling of national debt to help harder hit parts of Europe.

It will be a test of her leadership, beside French leader Emmanuel Macron and other EU leaders, whether she can convert a group of skeptics known as “the frugal four” – Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden — who have resisted the scale and makeup of the $850 billion recovery plan.

Yet even as that story unfolds, Germany at the same time is at the center of an unfolding global drama. At its heart is the danger of a strategic, transatlantic decoupling – highlighted in this space two weeks ago – that would alter 75 years of history.

Will Germany continue to define itself first-and-foremost as a strategic partner and ally of the United States? Or will it tilt more toward an alignment with China and Russia due to growing economic lures, in the first case, and geographic proximity and energy interests, in the latter? Or will it, and thus Europe, instead free float among powers in the pursuit of “strategic autonomy,” a situation unlikely to result in a more peaceful and integrated Europe?

European attitudes toward the United States have shifted dramatically downward during the Covid-19 crisis. A new poll commissioned by the European Council on Foreign Relations showed that in Denmark, Portugal, France, Germany and Spain that around two-thirds of people surveyed said their view of the U.S. had grown worse.

In Germany, the mood soured further after President Trump’s announcement on June 15, without prior consultation with Berlin, that the U.S. plans to withdraw 9,500 of its 34,500 troops from Germany, even as the U.S. weighs $3.1 billion in new trade sanctions on Europe.

Chancellor Merkel’s friends privately share that she believes it is President Trump’s spite, more than anything else, that lay behind the timing and nature of his troop withdrawal announcement, following her decision not to physically attend a G-7 meeting that the president had hoped to schedule in Washington this month.   

Some German officials have cast doubt on whether even the possible election of former Vice President Joe Biden in November would alter this trajectory. “Everyone who thinks everything in the trans-Atlantic partnership will be as it once was with a Democratic president underestimates the structural changes,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass told the German press agency DPA this week.

Chancellor Merkel has made relations with Beijing a cornerstone of her EU presidency, and her country’s manufacturing base has come increasingly to depend on the Chinese market. German exports to China have risen more than fivefold since Merkel took over as chancellor in 2005 to more than $125 billion, making it the country’s number one market. The United States stood at number three at some $78 billion.  A full third of China’s trade with the EU is transacted with Germany.

Most Europeans blame President Trump’s punitive trade policy and the tone of his tweets for the current threat of transatlantic decoupling. They see his distaste for the EU as evidence that Washington would prefer European disunity. For some, it seems as though Merkel has no other choice than embracing China.

Yet for Germany and Merkel, the promise of this second chance at leadership can only be fulfilled if she at the same time works to limit the erosion in transatlantic relations and ultimately restore European relations with the United States.

Germany is unified today because Merkel’s predecessor Helmut Kohl understood that his European and transatlantic aspirations reinforced each other. Difficult as it may seem at the moment for Chancellor Merkel to navigate both, it is the only course that can ensure her legacy and Germany’s hopes for European resilience and unity.

Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States’ most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant managing editor and as the longest-serving editor of the paper’s European edition. His latest book – “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth” – was a New York Times best-seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look each Saturday at the past week’s top stories and trends.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.

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