Angela Merkel meets Donald Trump ahead of G20 summit

US president demands action on North Korea and criticises Russia before Hamburg event

US president Donald Trump warns of threats to the way of life in the West as he speaks to a large crowd in Warsaw, Poland. Video: Reuters

German chancellor Angela Merkel held talks with US president Donald Trump on Thursday ahead of the G20 meeting in Hamburg, in an effort to close widening transatlantic gaps over trade, climate change and global security.

Dr Merkel conceded on Thursday afternoon that there was still no agreement in sight on her packed summit agenda, as Mr Trump added another point to it by demanding a “pretty severe” response to the “global threat” posed by Pyongyang’s missile tests.

"They are behaving in a very, very serious manner, and something will have to be done about it," said Mr Trump of North Korea at an earlier press conference in Warsaw, in remarks that set the stage for a confrontation with China, North Korea's closest ally, during the Hamburg summit.

A woman blows bubbles at a demonstration in Hamburg prior to the G20 summit in the Germany city. Photograph: Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

US officials are pushing for leaders to react to North Korea’s test this week of an intercontinental ballistic missile, which is reportedly capable of reaching the US.


But US efforts to pressure Beijing will be countered by its demand, backed by Moscow, for international agreement on a plan whereby Pyongyang would suspend its nuclear projects in exchange for a moratorium on US and South Korean military drills in the region.

Even before the North Korean missile launch, the G20 meeting was gearing up to be a bad-tempered affair, given the increasingly disparate policy positions of the attending parties.

Host Angela Merkel and European officials have backed a pro-climate change action, pro-globalisation summit agreement. However, after May's G7 meeting left the US president isolated, German officials are anxious to reach an agreement that includes the US – although not at any price.

Mixed signals from Washington and last-minute negotiation left G20 delegations in Hamburg still working to find common ground as their leaders arrived on Thursday evening.

Dr Merkel's meeting with Mr Trump on Thursday in Hamburg's Hotel Atlantic was a final attempt to sound out whether his administration is in a conciliatory mood – or if it plans to use the event as a stage for trade or diplomatic volleys against China and Europe.

Arriving in Hamburg, Dr Merkel said the recent agreement on an EU-Japan free trade deal underlined Europe’s wish for open societies and trade flows. “There are different views of globalisation,” she said.

In a veiled criticism of Mr Trump, she added: “I think globalisation can be shaped so it is a win-win situation; where there are winners, there doesn’t always have to be losers.”

Mr Trump has already signalled his determination to only back trade deals that clearly benefit the US. In response to recent remarks by Dr Merkel that Europe could no longer rely on its traditional allies, he said in Warsaw: “Europe must demonstrate that it believes in its future by investing its money to secure that future.”

Position on Putin

On his second European trip as president, and the first to his ancestral home of Germany, the US leader will on Friday have his first face-to-face meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Questioned in Warsaw about suspected Moscow interference in the 2016 US presidential race, Mr Trump equivocated, saying: "I think it was Russia, and it could have been other people in other countries."

“Nobody really knows for sure,” he added, echoing previous answers and pointing to US intelligence failings in the past.

While Mr Trump attacked Russia's "destabilising" efforts in the Ukraine, White House officials, with an eye on the ongoing domestic investigation into alleged links between Russia and Trump's election campaign, were anxious for a broader bilateral meeting with Mr Putin.

US officials say they are ready to discuss Syrian no-fly zones, putting ceasefire observers on the ground in Syria and renewed efforts to get humanitarian aid to Syrian civilians. US secretary of state Rex Tillerson said in a statement that agreement in Hamburg on these issues would "lay a foundation for progress on the settlement of Syria's political future".

The arrival of more than a dozen world leaders has brought the northern port city of Hamburg to a standstill. Many locals have fled the city, while shop-owners have barricaded their premises. On Thursday afternoon, an estimated 10,000 anti-G20 demonstrators marched through the city in protest at the international gathering.

"I see the G20 [as] responsible for the injustice in this world and I want to protest against it," said Timo Schmidt, a Hamburg local.

Anti-G20 campaigners are critical of the summit’s agenda and its location in the inner-city trade fair beside alternative left-wing projects, as well as pre-emptive police interventions against demonstrators. “We see this as an attempt to criminalise and stigmatise critics of the G20,” said Andreas Blechschmidt, an anti-G20 organiser.

Police spokesman Timo Zill defended the security operations, noting that several thousand militant protesters were now in the city.

In a possible taste of things to come, a fire attack on a Porsche dealership in Hamburg resulted in millions of euro in damage. Elton John also cancelled a planned concert in the city.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin