Why did Macron and Merkel visit Trump?

By George N. Tzogopoulos
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, May 4, 2018
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U.S. President Donald Trump (R) attends a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House in Washington D.C., the United States, on April 27, 2018. [Photo/Xinhua]

It is not common practice in transatlantic relations for the leaders of the two leading EU member-states, France and Germany, to pay successive visits within the same week to the White House. This is what happened a few days ago when both French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel went to the U.S. to meet President Donald Trump. 

Clearly, transatlantic relations have been strained since Trump came to power. He does not believe in the project of European integration, he asks European NATO members to pay more, and he generally does not value the EU role in international affairs.

But these issues are well-known and cannot explain the decision of Macron and Merkel to visit Trump in the last week of April as a matter of urgency. The main reason why they did so is related to two additional thorns in the transatlantic partnership. The first is the introduction of tariffs in the U.S. import of steel and aluminum, which might soon damage relevant European industries. And the second is the forthcoming speech of Trump regarding Iran, which is expected to be made on May 12 and might lead to a potential withdrawal of his country from the 2015 nuclear deal. 

Starting with the serious economic differences, Trump seems prepared to act in order to alter the trade imbalances. Looking at the trade volume of goods between the EU and the U.S., the former has been enjoying a significant surplus for years. European Commission data show that this surplus was €122.0 billion in 2015, €113.2 billion in 2016 and €119.7 in 2017. The degree of the problem is apparent when looking at some additional data. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the French trade surplus in goods with the U.S. was $17.6 billion in 2015, $15.5 billion in 2016 and $15.3 billion in 2017. The German surplus was $74.8 billion in 2015, $64.7 billion in 2016 and $64.2 billion in 2017. 

Trump often refers to both these economic relationships as unfair. He also did so during his press conference with Merkel, for instance, exposing the stance of his predecessors. The EU has been exempted from the tariffs introduced in March but for a short period expiring at the beginning of May. Both Macron and Merkel want to make some concessions in order to push Trump to continue exempting the EU from the tariffs in the long-term.  The American president will hardly be conciliatory on the matter though. His determination to fix unfair trade is placed in the framework of the "America First" agenda and is becoming even more significant in view of the November mid-term elections. 

As far as the Iran nuclear agreement is concerned, the EU – principally France, Germany and the U.K. – are offering to Trump some new measures to punish Tehran for its ballistic missile program and its "destabilizing" actions in the Middle East region. The next few days will be important as the American president has to evaluate whether these measures are sufficient in order for the U.S. to keep the nuclear deal alive. The theme is very complicated because France, Germany and the U.K. also need to obtain consensus at the EU level to proceed. This has not happened yet. There are important European countries such as Italy which do not want to see the business honeymoon started after July 2015 to be suddenly stopped. 

Trump is putting the EU under serious pressure. He is able to use the verbal threat of tariff as a bargaining tool to ask Europe to do more to punish Iran. Irrespective of future developments it is straightforward that the EU cannot collaborate with the U.S. under its own terms as it used to do in the years of Barack Obama. So, Macron and Merkel are endeavoring to appease the pain as much as they can. 

Most international media frame the recent visits of Macron and Merkel in the U.S. from the perspective of the personal relationship between themselves and Trump. And they conclude that the latter likes the French president more than the German chancellor. But international politics are not shaped by that kind of sympathies. The main conclusion after the recent meetings in the White House is that the U.S. president is setting the tone in transatlantic relations. Nice speeches as the one given by Macron in the U.S. Congress are not warping the new reality. 

George N. Tzogopoulos is a columnist with China.org.cn. For more information please visit:


Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of China.org.cn.

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