German Chancellor Angela Merkel is heading to Washington with the same message French President Emmanuel Macron delivered only days earlier: that America and Europe need to bury the hatchet on key issues, from global trade to international security.
Yet despite Macron’s and Merkel’s efforts to portray a united European front, the optics of their visits couldn’t be more different.
While U.S. President Donald Trump received Macron and his wife for a glitzy three-day state visit this week, Merkel gets a 20-minute private chat Friday in the Oval Office followed by a working lunch.
And unlike the bonhomie on display during Macron visit, past encounters suggest Merkel and Trump won’t be putting on a show of mutual affection for the White House cameras.
That should be fine with Merkel, who has little to gain back home by being overly friendly with Trump, according to German political analyst Jan Techau.
“For Merkel, it’s quite important domestically not to be seen to be getting too close to Trump,” said Techau, a senior fellow at think tank The German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Anti-American sentiment has been growing again in Germany since Trump’s election, with mainstream media regularly portraying the U.S. president as a threat to the world.
But Merkel, who responded to Trump’s “America First” message by saying that “we in Europe have to take our fate into our own hands,” knows she needs to find a way to win over the U.S. president or risk a further decline in relations between Berlin and Washington, said Techau.
“In the end, we are much more dependent on America than the Americans are on us,” he said.
Two deadlines loom large ahead of her trip: the first is Trump’s demand for an overhaul by May 12 of the nuclear deal with Iran — an agreement that Germany, like France, worked hard to secure and believes should remain in place.
Although Germany is unlikely to accept a wholesale rewrite of the deal, Berlin has indicated that it’s prepared to consider add-ons that would crack down on Tehran’s ballistic missile program and curb Iranian efforts to strengthen its strategic role in the Middle East.
The second deadline concerns the extension of new U.S. tariffs on foreign-made steel and aluminum, which some fear could trigger a global wave of protectionism that would deeply harm a trading nation such as Germany.
“The threatened punitive taxes will be a tough test of the trans-Atlantic relationship,” said Dieter Kempf, head of Germany’s influential BDI industrial lobby group. “In Germany, every fourth job depends on exports. In the industrial sectors, it’s more than every second job.”
Merkel’s aides sought to play down expectations that her U.S. visit will result in a breakthrough on the trade issue. A senior government official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with department rules, said the German government expects the exemption Trump granted the European Union from new U.S. import tariffs on steel and aluminum to expire on May 1.
Berlin hopes to convince Trump to reconsider his claim that America is being treated unfairly by pointing out that tariffs on all cars — if pickup trucks and SUVs are included — are almost identical in Europe and the United States. German automakers also export more cars made in U.S. factories to the rest of the world than are imported to the United States from Germany, officials say.
It remains to be seen whether Merkel’s facts-and-figures approach will be more successful than Macron’s charm offensive.
The French president got plenty of warm handshakes and standing ovations during his trip to Washington, but the overall verdict back home was more sober.
“He passed the test,” said RTL radio commentator Olivier Mazerolle. Le Parisien said ultimately “nothing budged” in the two president’s disputes over the Middle East or on climate change.
Still, Macron’s attacks on Trump policies during his speech to Congress haven’t yet sparked a nasty tweet from the U.S. president. After the speech, Macron insisted that their relationship “on a personal and national level is excellent.”
Merkel, meanwhile, has subtly shifted her stance on two issues that are important to the United States.
Earlier this month, she acknowledged that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would bring gas from Russia directly to Germany, “is not just a business project.”
“Of course, political factors have to be taken into account,” said Merkel — a reference to U.S. concerns about the impact the pipeline will have on its allies Poland and Ukraine.
Similarly, Germany last week announced plans to step up defense spending, a long-standing demand in Washington. While Germany is still likely to miss the goal of devoting 2 percent of its gross domestic product to defense that’s expected of NATO members, the move could be taken as a sign that Berlin has gotten the message.
Some German officials have been quietly playing with the idea of buying U.S.-made F-35 jets to replace the country’s aging fleet of Tornado planes. The hope is that this would show Berlin’s willingness to act on military spending while also improving the U.S. trade balance with Germany.