German Chancellor Angela Merkel has arrived in Washington for a one-day working visit with President Trump. The two leaders are expected to discuss a range of issues including trade, Iran, and defense, but after French President Macron’s stately visit and earlier this week, Merkel may find him a difficult act to follow.
Far from Macron and Trump’s reported “bromance,” Merkel’s relationship with the Donald is chilly at best. After a genial relationship with Obama, she greeted Trump’s election with a moralizing and disapproving tone that has continued ever since. At the G7 summit last May, she said “the era in which we [Europe] could fully rely on others is over to some extent,” in a statement widely taken to snub the President, just a few weeks after Trump refused to shake her hand during her first visit to the White House. This will be Merkel’s second visit, though reportedly the two have barely spoken over the year.
Good Cop Bad Cop
Merkel and Macron represent a tag team designed to approach the U.S. administration from two flanks. Macron has warmed up the room with his friendly visit earlier in the week, meeting Trump with a mixture of bonhomie and pragmatism; now the stern figure of Angela Merkel is expected to present a businesslike demeanor with little of Macron’s flair. While the French president was granted a three-day state visit with much fanfare, Merkel will only have a one day working visit with none of the ceremony granted to Macron. Despite their different approaches, Macron made a visit to Berlin last week to coordinate with Merkel, leaving no doubt that the two present a united front.
The major reason to invite Macron and Merkel, the leaders of Europe’s two largest economies post-Brexit, is trade. President Trump has threatened to impose tariffs of 25% on steel and 10% on aluminum imports from the European Union, as well as 35% tariffs on auto imports – a huge portion of German trade. The threats have sparked fears in Europe of a trade war and the Merkel/Macron dream team has undoubtedly been tasked by the E.U. with securing an exemption from U.S. tariffs, ahead of a May 1 deadline. Even one of Trump’s staunchest allies, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has failed to gain a similar exemption, and European officials are reportedly resigned to disappointment despite this last-ditch attempt.
Trump reportedly called Germany “very bad” on trade at the G7 summit, however, Macron ended his visit by denying that a trade imbalance exists. “There is no unbalanced relationship,” he said, adding that that overcapacity in steel and aluminum “doesn’t come from Europe.” He later rebuked Trump’s “isolationism, withdrawal, and nationalism,” in a speech to Congress, analyzed here by LN’s Onar Åm.
President Trump has threatened to pull out of the Iran nuclear agreement unless Europe comes up with a solution to “fix the terrible flaws” in the arrangement by May 12. The Iran nuclear deal is an issue Trump campaigned on, though pulling out would have wide-reaching international ramifications with other signatories including the UK, China, Russia, France, and Germany.
Despite his attempt to convince Trump to remain in the agreement, Macron predicted at the end of his visit that, “[Trump] will get rid of this deal on his own, for domestic reasons.” There may be a new deal on the cards, however, with the French President saying that “We therefore wish, from now on, to work on a new deal with Iran…. I therefore would like us to commit to that effect in the weeks and months to come.” Macron’s envisioned deal would involve blocking Iran’s nuclear program until 2025, prevent long-term nuclear activity, put an end to ballistic missile activity and contain Iran’s influence in the region, including its power in Syria.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has questioned his right to propose a change in terms, saying “Together with a leader of a European country [the Americans] say: ‘We want to decide on an agreement reached by seven parties. For what? With what right?”
Nevertheless, if Macron and Trump hashed out a basic plan for Iran, Merkel will likely use it as a blueprint for further discussion during her own meeting with the president.
On the heels of France’s cooperation with the U.S. in military strikes against Syria, Trump is expected to confront Merkel over her defense budget, having accused Germany of underspending in its NATO obligations. “If you look at NATO, where Germany pays 1 percent and we are paying 4.2 percent of a much bigger GDP – that’s not fair,” he said in March.
Mike Pompeo, newly confirmed as Secretary of State, has also singled out Germany ahead of a meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels. He is expected to put the pressure on for countries to “step up” and meet their funding requirements as a deterrent to a perceived threat from Russia. He said:
“Six countries in NATO currently do so, nine have submitted credible plans for doing so, and it’s time for the other 13 members of the alliance to step up, and especially Germany, NATO’s largest and wealthiest European member state.”
Merkel has already committed to increasing her defense budget by around $18 billion by 2021, though projections show this would still fall short of NATO requirements. A damning report revealed in February that Germany’s military is severely under-equipped, suffering from maintenance issues and shortages in clothing, tents, protective gear, and personnel. Author of the report, Hans-Peter Bartels, Germany’s parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces, stated that the German military is “not equipped to meet the tasks before it,” and that operational readiness is “dangerously low.” He also questioned their ability to take over NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), which it is scheduled to do next year.
Macron and Merkel may represent two different countries, but they are also two leading spokespeople of the European Union, approaching all issues from a collective standpoint more than a national one. As Trump pursues a contrasting “America First” policy, world leaders are welcome to petition their causes but there is no guarantee of success.