Two worlds collide in Washington as Merkel to meet Trump
German chancellor is no stranger to colourful male leaders, but US president raises the bar
US president Donald Trump and German chancellor Angela Merkel. Fiercely pragmatic, Merkel will set aside the president’s campaign rhetoric and regular swipes at the “catastrophic error” of her refugee policy. Photographs: Jim Watson, John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images
Grotesque and absurd was how Angela Merkel described not Donald Trump’s election, but the idea that it left the German chancellor as last defender of the liberal free world.
Yet when Merkel meets Trump in the White House on Friday, to press German and European interests, the expectations could scarcely be higher. Trump is a political apprentice, instinct-driven and impulsive; Merkel, a low-key veteran of 12 years in power, is cautious and calculating.
Ahead of their meeting, which was delayed by three days because of US snowstorms, she has pored over scores of interviews, even his 1990 Playboy description of his style as “much more improvisational than people might think”.
From Silvio Berlusconi to Vladimir Putin, Merkel is no stranger to colourful male leaders. And she has faced uphill battles before on the transatlantic front, inheriting the wrecked transatlantic relationship in 2005 and working quickly to offer President George W Bush an olive branch. She invited him to a Texas barbecue in her constituency; he gave her a very public neck rub.
But it will take more than a massage to ease the knots of tension in the Trump-Merkel relationship. Fiercely pragmatic, Merkel will set aside his campaign rhetoric and regular swipes at the “catastrophic error” of her refugee policy. Even plans for a wall with Mexico, shocking to someone who grew up behind the Iron Curtain like Merkel, are off-limits. Her officials insist she won’t intervene in what they view as “domestic policy”.
Berlin hopes for the former, seeing in the Pence camp constructive officials with traditional Republican views on Russia.
“My decided impression is these are people we can work with,” said a senior Merkel adviser on Monday, seeing no signs that Washington will move to lift Russian sanctions until the Minsk agreement on Ukraine is fully implemented.
After mixed messages on Nato – “obsolete” for Trump, crucial for his senior staff – Merkel will stand firm on her promise to increase defence spending, but insist it won’t happen overnight.
After Trump’s EU-critical rhetoric in the last months, a Merkel priority in Washington is to explain better how the EU works, pushing back on his views that Berlin manipulates euro exchange rates or that the bloc, as he said in January, is a “vehicle for Germany”.
The toughest talk will be on trade, with Merkel’s vision of global trade colliding with Trump’s “America First” threats of import duties and trade wars. BMW chief executive Harald Krüger, travelling with Merkel, will explain to Trump how BMW’s South Carolina production plant makes it the largest car exporter in the US.
Another pressure point for the Trump administration: Germany’s massive trade surplus. For Berlin, exporting a staggering €253 billion more than it imports annually underlines how competitive its companies are, and how in-demand their goods and services.
Complaints that such a surplus is a dangerous economic imbalance – aired regularly by EU partners, the IMF and the European Commission – have fallen on deaf ears in Berlin. But now the Trump administration has joined the battle, promising to “deal with” Berlin on this matter.
Unlike other world leaders, she didn’t rush to congratulate Trump – instead, in an unusual bout of megaphone diplomacy, Merkel offered him a cool and strictly conditional offer of co-operation, on the basis of shared values such as respect for human dignity and freedom of speech.
Given his proposed travel ban on Muslim-majority countries, and “enemy of the people” attacks on the media, the chancellor’s challenge is to find a future for the transatlantic relationship with Trump given the wide, and widening, values gap.