Washington: The transatlantic diplomatic rift widened on Tuesday as US president Donald Trump responded to criticism from Chancellor Angela Merkel with a new attack on German trade tactics and defence spending.
Trump’s spokesman Sean Spicer insisted that the leaders “get on very well” but — as is often the case — his warm words from the White House podium were overshadowed by the president’s intemperate tweets.
When Trump returned over the weekend from the first foreign trip of his presidency, his aides hailed the tour as a success and a sign of renewed and bolder US leadership on the world stage.
But, while Trump received a warm welcome in Saudi Arabia and Israel, he left behind a bitter taste in Europe after the NATO summit in Brussels and the G7 get-together of the world’s richest powers in Sicily.
European leaders were especially dismayed by Trump’s refusal to reaffirm US support for last year’s Paris climate change accord and his failure to publicly endorse NATO’s mutual defence pledge.
Germany, until recently Washington’s closest partner in Europe, was particularly discomfited, and Merkel wasted no time in warning German voters that the United States can no longer be relied upon as before.
Trump’s response came in the early hours of Tuesday when he took to Twitter to once again demand that Germany renegotiate the terms of transatlantic trade and boost its defence spending.
“We have a MASSIVE trade deficit with Germany, plus they pay FAR LESS than they should on NATO & military,” Trump wrote, in his flamboyantly undiplomatic style. “Very bad for US. This will change.”
‘Trump was not aggressive’
German officials have repeatedly insisted that, as a member of the European Union, they cannot conduct bilateral trade talks with the US and that they are not ready to dramatically increase military spending.
In January, the White House accused Germany of exploiting an undervalued euro to boost its trade advantage, despite Berlin’s long opposition to the European Central Bank’s loose monetary policy.
And, even after he held a frosty meeting with Merkel in Washington in March and heard her explain Germany has no independent, non-EU trade policy, Trump continues to complain about Germany’s surplus.
According to the German weekly Der Spiegel, Trump told European officials in Brussels last week that “the Germans are bad, very bad.”
Spicer gamely tried to deny the report, insisting that European Commission chairman Jean-Claude Juncker had confirmed that “Trump was not aggressive on German trade surplus.”
But after Merkel and other senior German officials, who are campaigning ahead of September national elections in their own country, spent the weekend attacking Trump, the US leader returned to the theme.
‘Weakening the West’
Not only does the spat continue but Merkel has seized upon it as an opportunity — in the wake of the election of Emmanuel Macron as a pro-Europe French president — to rally Europe around her leadership.
She warned German voters that her experience in dealing with Trump at NATO and the G7 had convinced her that the times when Europe could rely on Washington and London “are coming to an end.”
“Transatlantic ties are of paramount importance to us… but the current situation gives more reasons for… us to take our destiny in our own hands,” she said Tuesday.
“Europe must become a player active in international affairs.”
German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel was even more blunt on Monday, slamming the US president’s “short-sighted” policies that have “weakened the West” and hurt European interests.
“The short-sighted policies of the American government stand against the interests of the European Union,” he warned, judging that “the West has become smaller, at least it has become weaker.”
Speaking just days after Trump promised to sell Saudi Arabia $110 billion worth of arms in order to deter Iran, Gabriel accused Washington of fuelling religious conflict.
And he warned against “accelerating climate change by weakening environmental protection.”
British anti-EU politician Nigel Farage, who has built a bond with Trump, accused Merkel and Juncker of triggering a row with Washington deliberately to further the “anti-democratic” goal of a German-led European state.
“Believe me, I know Trump and I know the people around him. He is not going to kick NATO into touch provided people pay their way,” Farage claimed.
“Merkel and Juncker actually want to see the Americans leaving Europe. And I regard that, far from being good for peace, actually as being very dangerous.”
Trump said he will give his verdict on the Paris accord later this week and has warned that Washington may pull out of a pact that European leaders see as the last best hope to slow global warming.