WHITE HOUSE - When U.S. President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel sit down for a ‘get to know you’ session at the White House Friday, the entire future of the Transatlantic relationship will be hanging in the balance.
The leaders of two of the world’s most powerful economies have seemed to be on a collision course since candidate Trump accused Merkel of ‘ruining Europe” with liberal immigration policies, spoke ill of NATO, and hinted at a trade war.
Merkel, for her part, scolded Trump for imposing a travel ban on immigrants from six mostly Muslim countries, and reminded him that any “close U.S./Germany cooperation must be based on ‘’values of democracy, freedom, respect for the rule of law and human dignity, regardless of origin, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political belief.”
A minefield of explosive issues await. But on many of the key points, from NATO to the European Union, experts say the seeds of cooperation have already been sown.
Daniel Hamilton, director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, says it’s important to note that while Trump often says one thing, his administration actually is doing something else.
“When it comes to official statements, his vice president [Pence] went to Germany and Brussels and said reassuring things about NATO. Secretary [of Defense] Mattis echoed all that. Those have all been mainstream traditional U.S. foreign policy statements about the alliance,” he said.
Analysts note, too, that Merkel’s Germany and other NATO allies have responded positively to President Trump’s call for Europe to take a greater share of the collective defense burden. “He [Trump] has blown hot and cold on NATO,” Hamilton explains. “They need to step up on their financial commitment, but the president has been a bit mistaken in saying the Europeans have lagged in the fight against terrorism.”
Still, Hamilton warns of “troubled waters” on the economic front of the U.S./EU relationship. Trump’s stated preference for bilateral pacts with trading partners flies in the face of the European Union’s position that it is the sole representative of its 28 member countries.
As a candidate, Trump suggested he would renounce multilateral deals such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP) with Europe, which had been championed by Merkel and former president Barack Obama.
In a hint at a possible compromise, a senior administration official told reporters last week that T-TIP could be considered a one-on-one trade deal, given how the EU structure interconnects European economies.
Another hot potato will be the so-called "border adjustment tax," which is meant to encourage companies to make goods in the United States. Trump sees the tax as boosting his job creation agenda. Europeans see it as a challenge to the global trading system at a time when Trump’s policies are pushing the United States toward protectionism.
“The Germans are worried,” said Stephen Szabo, executive director of the Transatlantic Academy and a fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, “Trump’s trade negotiator [Peter] Navarro has been singling out Germany as the biggest U.S. trade problem, bigger even than China”. Navarro heads the newly formed White House National Trade Council.
Szabo says Merkel will make the point that “German firms are big investors in the U.S., creating more than 600,000 American jobs in American-German companies. So she’s going to explain that ‘if you go after us, you’re going to be hurting jobs in the U.S.’”
SAIS’s Daniel Hamilton says Merkel will try to use her considerable negotiating skills to provide a fuller understanding of European perspectives to a president famous for his book "The Art of the Deal." “Her style is not to confront; she’s very pragmatic, she downplays the drama,” he told VOA. “She’ll come with a number of key agenda points, part of it is to help the president understand some of the dynamics affecting Europe and Germany’s role”.
Hamilton sees the White House meetings as a prelude to further negotiations when Trump makes his first presidential visit to Europe in May to attend both a NATO summit in Brussels followed by a G7 summit on the Italian island of Sicily. “That will be the next big step," he said.