A meeting of opposites as Merkel calls on Trump

German chancellor's visit to the White House will bring together two leaders with very different personalities and ideologies.

German chancellor Angela Merkel has been called the new leader of the free world after Donald Trump became the new US president in January. Clemens Bilan / EPA / March 14, 2017
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German chancellor Angela Merkel will meet US president Donald Trump at the White House on Friday in what is expected to be a clash of personalities and ideologies.

Mrs Merkel was supposed to have arrived in the United States on Tuesday. But with Washington, DC shut down by a snowstorm on Monday, Mr Trump phoned the chancellor as she was headed to the airport to reschedule.

The storm provided an apt metaphor for the kind of relationship that has been forecast to emerge between Mrs Merkel and Mr Trump ever since he took office in January.

“The two leaders couldn’t be more different,” said Timo Lochocki, a political analyst and fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, which works on building transatlantic cooperation. “He’s impulsive and emotional. She thinks longer and is so much more strategic. It’s very hard to even tell what she’s thinking.”

Mr Trump has made no secret of his America-first nationalism, of his distaste for the European Union and Nato, and of his intent to rectify trade deficits with countries like Germany, which export more to the US than they import from it.

The US president has also faulted Mrs Merkel’s leadership during Europe’s continuing refugee crisis.

"I think she made one very catastrophic mistake, and that was taking all of these illegals," Mr Trump said in an interview with Britain's Times and Germany's Bild newspapers in January, adding that he otherwise had "great respect" for her.

He accused the EU of having become “a vehicle for Germany”, and promised to inflict a tax of 35 per cent on cars that the German firm BMW plans to manufacture at a new plant in Mexico.

For Mrs Merkel – who shared such a close relationship with former US president Barack Obama that his last official phone call to a foreign leader was to her – talks with Mr Trump will involve walking a fine diplomatic line.

The chancellor has been referred to by many western news outlets as the new leader of the free world after Mr Obama left office. Her stature as the three-term chancellor of Germany, and her public espousal of liberal values, stand in sharp contrast to Mr Trump’s novitiate presidency and populist conservatism.

Mrs Merkel has already found cause to criticise Mr Trump’s policies. In January, when the US president implemented a short-lived ban on travellers from seven Muslim-majority nations and on all refugees, Mrs Merkel’s spokesperson said she had to explain the Geneva Convention to Mr Trump in a phone call.

At the same time, the chancellor needs to establish a sound relationship with Mr Trump, to both protect Germany’s economic interests and convince voters ahead of a re-election bid later this year that she is the best candidate to deal with an unpredictable leader across the Atlantic.

In one poll of German voters, taken in mid-January, 55 per cent feared a deterioration in US-German relations during Mr Trump’s presidency.

Mrs Merkel is also keen to stave off any form of economic protectionism Mr Trump may try to usher in, either by way of higher import tariffs or by persuading US companies on German soil to move home.

The chancellor will be accompanied by a high-profile business delegation, including the heads of BMW and Siemens. BMW employs nearly 70,000 people in the US, while Siemens employs around 50,000.

“This again is strategic on her part,” Mr Lochocki said. “The delegation will prove how much Germany invests in the US and how Americans benefit from the relationship. But also, Merkel knows Trump is a businessman. With the delegation by her side, she can talk his language, the language of business.”

Germany relies upon this trade relationship, with one in every two German jobs dependent on exports. Last year, Germany sold €107 billion (Dh393bn) worth of goods to the US, but imported only €57bn worth.

Peter Navarro, Mr Trump’s adviser on trade, has called this imbalance a “serious issue” and accused the EU of deliberately devaluing the euro to gain a price advantage.

“Germany is one of the most difficult trade deficits that we’re going to have to deal with [and] we’re thinking long and hard about that,” he said last week.

German media have described Mrs Merkel’s methodical preparation for her meeting with Mr Trump, which they say included going through old interviews and video clips to gauge the personality of her counterpart.

“She will try to avoid conflict, of course,” Mr Lochocki said. “But she has all the economic might of Europe behind her, and I think she is also fully prepared to tackle a trade war if necessary.”