FACT CHECK Trump's Claims about Europe

In his first interviews with European media, the U.S. president-elect has unsettled the Continent by challenging fundamental assumptions about trans-Atlantic relations, but his claims often play fast and loose with the truth.
Quelle: Getty Images
Donald Trump gave his first German interview as president elect to the daily tabloid Bild.

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump seems to believe that the European Union has short changed the United States in trans-Atlantic trade and security arrangements.

In an interview with German and British press over the weekend, Mr. Trump complained that trade with Germany was a one-way street and criticized NATO members for not paying enough for their security.

It’s no wonder, then, that the president-elect supports Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. Instead of trying to shore up the 28-nation bloc (27 once Britain leaves), Mr. Trump said he expects more countries to head for the exit.

Several of the president-elect’s claims and positions about Europe, however, are based on dubious assumptions.

While Mr. Trump attacked Germany over trade, he promised to rapidly reach a free trade agreement with Britain.

Mr. Trump, for example, continued his rhetorical offensive against the automobile industry, this time threatening German automakers with a 35-percent tariff if they don’t play fair.

German automobiles are all over New York, he said, while U.S. brands such as Chevrolet are hardly seen on the streets of Germany.

It's true that U.S. carmakers haven't had much of an impact on Germany. General Motors pulled Chevrolet from the German market in 2015. GM does however still own a German subsidiary in Opel, admittedly itself a long struggling brand.

German automakers, however, aren’t just exporting vehicles to the U.S. market and cashing in. Volkswagen, BMW and Daimler all have plants in the United States that employ thousands of people and manufacture tens of thousands of automobiles.

Daimler, in fact, is the largest exporter in Alabama, while BMW’s largest plant in the world is in South Carolina. And Volkswagen recently expanded its plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

While Mr. Trump attacked Germany over trade, he promised to rapidly reach a free-trade agreement with Britain in the wake of its decision to leave the European Union.

“We’re gonna work very hard to get it done quickly and done properly,” Mr. Trump said. “Good for both sides."

Washington covers 22 percent of the alliance’s budget, while Germany contributes 14.5 percent.

The president-elect claimed that Britain chose to leave the European Union due to the refugee crisis, and he criticized Chancellor Angela Merkel for opening Germany’s borders.

“I think she made one very catastrophic mistake and that was taking all of these illegals, you know, taking all of the people from wherever they come from,” Mr. Trump said.

It's true that Ms. Merkel has faced criticism for her open-door refugee policy at home, and immigration was a key issue in the Brexit debate. But Britain has actually played only a minor role in the refugee crisis. While London has promised to take in 20,000 refugees by 2020, Germany accepted more than 1 million people in 2015 alone.

Britain, in fact, has more control over its borders than most European countries – even before deciding to start the process of leaving the European Union. It’s not a member of the Schengen zone, which allows passport-free travel, and even citizens from other 27 E.U. member states have to show their passports to enter the country.

Beyond trade and immigration, Mr. Trump also took issue with Europe on security. He dismissed NATO as obsolete and criticized Europeans for not contributing their fair share to the alliance.

The discrepancy between U.S. and German NATO contributions aren’t as great as Mr. Trump’s comments would lead one to believe.

But Mr. Trump’s accusations against NATO allies don’t tell the whole story. It’s true that many members, including Germany, fail to meet the alliance’s benchmark on defense spending, which is set at 2 percent of gross domestic product.

Looking at NATO’s overall budget, however, the discrepancy between U.S. and German contributions aren’t as great as Mr. Trump’s comments would lead one to believe, especially when compared with the size of the two economies. Washington covers 22 percent of the alliance’s budget, while Germany contributes 14.5 percent.

While Mr. Trump criticized security arrangements with traditional U.S. allies, he expressed optimism about ties with a traditional adversary, Russia, and suggested sanctions could be eased.

“They have sanctions on Russia — let’s see if we can make some good deals with Russia,” Mr. Trump said. “For one thing, I think nuclear weapons should be way down and reduced very substantially, that’s part of it.”

The fact is that multiple members of his incoming cabinet are more wary of Russia's role in global security and support keeping the NATO military alliance intact.

"If we did not have NATO today, we would need to create it," General James Mattis, Mr. Trump's incoming defense secretary, told U.S. lawmakers last week.


Daniel Sauer is a freelance correspondent with Handelsblatt. Spencer Kimball of Handelsblatt Global contributed to this story. To contact the author: [email protected]