U.S. RELATIONS Mr. Gabriel Goes to Washington

In his first meeting with the Trump administration, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel faces simmering tensions that risk boiling over into a confrontation that could rupture trans-Atlantic relations.
Sigmar Gabriel, Germany's new foreign minister, labeled Mr. Trump a "danger" during the U.S. presidential campaign. Picture source: dpa

The German government and U.S. President Donald Trump have been on a diplomatic collision course for months on virtually every major issue in bilateral relations, from trade to immigration and security.

Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s new foreign minister, has set out for Washington to meet with the new U.S. secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, as well as Vice President Mike Pence in the hopes of heading off a major confrontation between the two largest economies in the trans-Atlantic alliance.

It’s the first official meeting between a high-ranking German official and the new U.S administration. It's also the first visit by any major European Union official – barring British Prime Minister Theresa May whose country intends to leave the E.U. – since Mr. Trump took office January 20.

A rupture between Germany and the United States could prove devastating for trans-Atlantic relations at a time when Britain is on its way out of the European Union.

Mr. Trump has repeatedly expressed support for Brexit in public and he predicted in a controversial interview with European press that more countries would leave the bloc.

A European diplomat, who spoke with Handelsblatt on condition of anonymity, expressed concern that the U.S. administration might actively support the breakup of the European Union.

On Friday, the leaders of the 28 E.U. members states will meet in Malta to discuss how they should respond to the new U.S. administration.

For Mr. Gabriel, the discussions in Washington are an opportunity to discern which of Mr. Trump’s controversial public statements, and there have been many, are just bluster and which ones constitute real policy proposals.

“We have questions for the new U.S. administration about its foreign policy course, its relationship to the alliance and the global order,” Mr. Gabriel said before taking off for Washington.

There was hope in Berlin that Mr. Trump would moderate his rhetoric and govern as a typical center-right U.S. politician...

After meeting with Senators Bob Corker and Ben Cardin, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Gabriel delivered the typical official platitudes reaffirming trans-Atlantic relations and common values.

“We have nothing to hide, but rather something to offer, namely, the common values of religious freedom and treating each other with fairness,” Mr. Gabriel said.

Between the lines of Mr. Gabriel’s statements, however, the shift in U.S.-German relations is clear. Friendship and trust aren’t a given anymore, but instead are an offer that has to be accepted.

The two sides managed to make nice for the public at least. Mr. Gabriel said his meeting with Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Tillerson went “very well." There were hardly any differences between the two sides on controversial issues ranging from Russia and Europe to immigration, he said.

"We also discussed the sanctions question," Mr. Gabriel said without providing further details.

Mr. Trump has indicated that he might ease sanctions against Russia. Mr. Tillerson, the former chief executive of Exxon, is known for having good relations with President Vladimir Putin. Berlin, for its part, has insisted that sanctions should remain in place until the Minsk agreement is implemented and the fighting ends in Ukraine.

Though both sides avoided a diplomatic incident, which is no small feat these days, the future of German-American relations remains far from certain.

It’s no great secret that Berlin would have preferred Hillary Clinton in the White House. During the U.S. presidential campaign, Mr. Gabriel – Germany’s economics minister at the time – did not shy away from expressing his views frankly and publicly.

"Whether Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen or Geert Wilders – all these right-wing populists are not only a danger to peace and social cohesion, but also to economic development," Mr Gabriel told the weekly Welt am Sonntag in an interview back in March.

Mr. Trump, for his part, used Chancellor Angela Merkel’s name to smear Ms. Clinton in the eyes of his far-right supporters. He said Ms. Clinton wanted to be "America’s Angela Merkel," a reference to the chancellor’s liberal refugee policy and his Democratic rival’s vow to take in more Syrians if elected.

But Ms. Clinton, to the surprise of Berlin, was defeated by Mr. Trump in a historic upset. In a subtle rebuke of Mr. Trump’s racially charged rhetoric, Ms. Merkel issued a statement offering the president-elect conditional cooperation based on shared democratic values and respect for the rule of law.

The New York Times went so far as to dub Ms. Merkel “the liberal West’s last defender.” President Barack Obama all but endorsed the chancellor’s re-election campaign in his last trip to Europe and thanked Ms. Merkel for her leadership in his last phone call to a foreign leader.

There was hope in Berlin that Mr. Trump would moderate his rhetoric and govern as a typical center-right U.S. politician, but the president-elect has continued to fire fusillades at the German government.

Germany should act with self-confidence and not be fearful or servile. Sigmar Gabriel, German foreign minister

In his first interview with European press as president-elect, Mr. Trump called Ms. Merkel’s decision to open Germany’s borders to a million migrants and refugees a “catastrophic mistake.” He then threatened to impose tariffs on German cars imported from Mexico, raising deep concern in Germany’s automobile industry, a key pillar of Europe’s largest economy.

To make a hat-trick of his diplomatic broadsides, Mr. Trump slammed the NATO alliance “obsolete” and demanded that the Europeans increase their defense spending. In response, Ms. Merkel continued to distance herself from the new administration.

“We Europeans have our fate in our own hands,” Ms. Merkel said following the Trump interview. “My position on trans-Atlantic questions are known.”

Tensions have only continued to rise in the wake of Mr. Trump’s interview. The president’s executive order halting immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries has raised concern in Berlin that German dual citizens could be affected.

In a phone call with Mr. Trump, Ms. Merkel expressed her regret over the immigration order and told the U.S. president that nations have an obligation under the Geneva convention to take in refugees, according to government spokesman Steffen Seibert.

Ms. Merkel said “she is convinced that the necessary fight against terrorism does not justify placing people of a particular origin or belief under general suspicion,” according to Mr. Seibert.

As the controversy over the immigration simmered, the Trump administration struck out at Germany again. Mr. Trump’s top trade adviser, Peter Navarro, accused Berlin in interview with the Financial Times of using a “grossly undervalued” euro to exploit the United States and E.U. member states.

Ms. Merkel was again forced to respond publicly: “Germany is a country that has always called for the European Central Bank to pursue an independent policy, just as the Bundesbank did that before the euro existed,” the chancellor said.

With tensions running high, Mr. Gabriel's meeting with Mr. Tillerson could set the tone for German-American relations in the Trump era. In an exclusive interview with Handelsblatt last month, Mr. Gabriel laid out how he plans to interact with Washington.

“Germany should act with self-confidence and not be fearful or servile,” Mr. Gabriel said. “We are a highly successful, technologically-advanced export nation with many hard-working people and smart companies.”

Mr. Gabriel slammed Mr. Trump's protectionist trade rhetoric, saying the president "must simply recognize that the U.S. economy often isn’t competitive, while the German [economy] is."

Germany's foreign minister believes he has found a silver lining in Mr. Trump's rise to the presidency. U.S. protectionism will create opportunities for German exporters that irk Mr. Trump to move in and pick up business lost by the United States, he said.

“If Trump starts a trade war with Asia and South America, it will open opportunities for us," Mr. Gabriel said.


Spencer Kimball is an editor with Handelsblatt Global based in the United States. Torsten Riecke of Handelsblatt contributed to this story. To contact the author: [email protected]