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Is this Angela Merkel’s moment to lead? Trump’s move to pull out of Paris accord is further riling Europe

Merkel, Europe’s de facto leader, told a packed beer hall rally in Munich that the days when her continent could rely on others was "over to a certain extent. This is what I have experienced in the last few days."

Munich — There are few in Europe who reckon that Donald Trump has treated them worse than the Germans.

There is bewilderment and anger in Germany that the U.S. president has chosen to use Twitter to make enemies out of normally content burghers who consider themselves to be Washington’s best friends and allies on the continent.

It is a fury that is likely to grow after Trump announced Thursday he’s pulling out of the Paris climate agreement. Germans regard themselves as the accord’s strongest backers and among the most committed environmentalists in the world. They will take this personally.

For nearly two years the conventional wisdom has been that Chancellor Angela Merkel might lose power in elections this September because she had suffered so much political damage after letting in about one million refugees from the Middle East and South Asia.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, left, speaks with U.S. President Donald Trump during a group photo at the G7 Summit on May 26, 2017.

Now, thanks to Trump’s repudiation of the climate accord and his severe criticisms of Germany’s trade and currency policies and how much — or rather, how little — it spends on defence, polls show Merkel 30 points ahead of her nearest rivals and likely to win a fourth term as chancellor.

It has become smart electoral politics for Merkel to campaign against Trump rather than her domestic opponents. Last weekend, carrying a massive stein, she worked a beer tent political rally at which she declared that it was time for Europe to seize its destiny with its own hands.

A day later, Merkel caused more ripples across the Atlantic when she told an interviewer that Germany could no longer count on the U.S. for support on trade, security and climate change, which is a huge issue for the German electorate.

Canadian public opinion about Trump is not that much different than in Germany. There may be lessons in this for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. But the Canadian leader must walk a trickier path because if Trump turns sharply against Canada the consequences would likely be much swifter and certainly more severe than in Europe.

Trudeau poses for a photo with Merkel after participating in a joint news conference earlier this year.

But if Trudeau was to take a tougher line than he has on Trump, it would give him a chance to fill in a bit of his big, and until now mostly empty, boast that Canada is back.

Until now Trudeau has been loathe to criticize anybody except for easy targets like Third World despots. When he was at the G7 and NATO summits in Japan and Poland last year, his words were the same as they were at the same gatherings in Europe last week. He genuinely seems to get along with everyone. Whether that actually means others take him seriously may be another matter.

Merkel has shown that you do not have to be flashy or photogenic to get re-elected. And it is not only her who is getting attention. The new French president, Emmanuel Macron, who is younger than Trudeau, and arguably as handsome, garnered headlines and plaudits for ripping Trump for overdoing his handshakes and dressed down Russian President Vladimir Putin at Versailles over the Kremlin’s propaganda offensive in Europe and for Syria’s use of chemical weapons. He also was complimented on the understanding that he revealed about a wide range of complicated issues, especially in the Middle East.

At least in public, Trudeau has not yet revealed a deep personal understanding of any of the hot files. His public comments sound carefully rehearsed and come across as milquetoast. There is little sense that he knows more about what is going on than what is in his talking points and he continues to go out of his way not to upset Canada’s friends or foes.

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks during a G7 closing news conference in the Sicilian town of Taormina, Italy, Saturday, May 27, 2017.

Merkel and Macron have had no such qualms lately. With both taking centre stage, commentators in both countries are saying Trump has “awakened Europe”, as Le Figaro put it. They urged them to seize the moment, ignore the U.S., and form an alliance.

Still, Merkel’s sticking her head above the ramparts represents uncharted territory for modern Germany. Decades of quasi-pacifism, have been the hallmark of Bonn’s and then Berlin’s post-war foreign policy.

But with Trump having selectively abdicated the U.S.’s role as the leader of what used to be called the Free World, Europe is slowly turning towards Merkel for leadership and she has reluctantly begun to take up the mantle.

This is neither a natural or happy act for Merkel. A child of East Germany and of straight-laced Lutheranism, she has always been a huge admirer of the U.S., an unabashed atlanticist and deeply skeptical about Russia.

Trump’s big gripe about Germany lately has been its whopping US$65 billion trade surplus. But this has not all been Merkel’s fault. The stunning fall of the euro over the past four years is closely linked to grave economic woes in southern Europe and immense uncertainty about the consequences of Brexit.

The U.S. trade deficit with China is nearly six times bigger than with Germany and Trump has not had much to say lately about that. Moreover, while attacking Germany for stealing American jobs, Trump ignored the fact that German companies have created more than half a million jobs in the U.S., with most of them coming since the end of the 20th century.

Trump has also repeatedly characterized Germany as a laggard on defence spending. Like most members of the alliance, it should certainly have done more. But the Germans have long spent at least 20 per cent more per capita every year on defence than Canada has and has publicly committed to increasing spending by as much as 30 per cent over the next few years. Contrast that with how the Trudeau government has answered NATO’s appeal for money for defence by not committing one more cent. Yet, Trump has made Germany the bogeyman on defence, not Canada.

All this, and the fact that Germany has contributed the second most troops to Afghanistan over the years, and is still there with military trainers, gives Merkel political ammunition at home and whenever she sits across from Trump.

The West is far weaker without the U.S. in the lead. It is clearly not a role that Merkel aspires to, but if Trump continues on his current bent, she may before too long be regarded as the de facto leader of the western world.