‘New kids on the block’ meet as Berlin reaches out to Washington

Foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel stresses equal rights on Library of Congress visit

German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel (left) meets US secretary of state Rex Tillerson at the Department of State in Washington on Thursday. Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Reuters

With just a week’s head start in office, Germany’s new foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, met his even newer US counterpart, Rex Tillerson, in Washington DC on Thursday, along with US vice-president Mike Pence. The meeting, following months of raw campaign rhetoric and broadsides against Germany, was Berlin’s first-high level attempt to establish a working relationship with Donald Trump’s administration.

“We’re the new kids on the block,” joked Mr Gabriel on arrival in the White House.

Last week Mr Gabriel switched from economics to the foreign portfolio after relinquishing the leadership of Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD). Freed from party leadership and the pressure to run against German chancellor Angela Merkel in September’s general election, Mr Gabriel has no shortage of work awaiting him in his new position: Russia, Ukraine, Syria, Iran, trade, and more. But Germany’s new foreign minister kept it light, telling Mr Pence, also aged 57, about his life growing up in West Germany, with its ambivalent relationship towards the US.

Germany will play a key role in Europe’s efforts to establish a working relationship with the new Washington administration. In two weeks Mr Pence will attend the Munich Security Conference while Mr Tillerson attends a G20 meeting of foreign ministers in Bonn.


Courtesy call

Apart from a short courtesy call and photo opportunity, neither US official went before the press, leaving it to their German visitor to fill the gap.

Mr Gabriel insisted that, whatever their differences, Germany still believed that “no other region in the world is as close to us as the USA, not just in security but politically and culturally”.

With an eye on Mr Trump’s protectionist threats, however, Mr Gabriel reminded his hosts of Germany and Europe’s “great economic strength”. After his election, Dr Merkel offered Mr Trump close co-operation “on the basis of shared values”. Echoing that conditional offer, Mr Gabriel insisted the values shared by the US and Europe “must remain”.

The foreign minister expressed Berlin’s concerns about the new executive order banning citizens from seven countries with Muslim majorities. Instead of directly criticising the travel ban or Mr Trump, however, Mr Gabriel visited the Library of Congress to inspect the original US Declaration of Independence. There he put on his spectacles to read aloud how it was “self-evident” that all men and women are “created equal” with “inalienable rights”.

“In days like these,” he said, “I think it’s important to emphasise this.”

Schulz attacks

Meanwhile, back in Berlin, Martin Schulz, Mr Gabriel’s designated successor as SPD leader, stepped up his attacks on Mr Trump as polls showed a rise in support for his campaign to oust Dr Merkel.

"A cultural war is beginning in the US," said Mr Schulz to Saturday's Der Spiegel, describing Mr Trump as "highly dangerous" to democracy and to western security.

After just a week in the race, an ARD public television poll showed that Mr Schulz had helped to give his SPD an eight-point bounce to 28 per cent. A separate poll for the Bild tabloid put the party on 27 per cent.

Though the SPD are still six points behind Dr Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), the polls suggest a shift in the political atmosphere, with the SPD pulling in support from both the CDU and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).

If they could, one in two voters said they would like Mr Schulz to lead Germany’s next federal government, compared with a figure of just one in three favouring Dr Merkel. And, after 12 years in power, her CDU is backed by just 39 per cent to lead the next government, compared with 50 per cent who favour the SPD.

Commenting on the poll results, SPD deputy leader Ralf Stegner said: “Frau Merkel’s lost her lustre.”

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin