US President Donald Trump set the tone for a tense Nato Summit on Wednesday as he launched a withering attack on Germany, accusing the country of being a “captive” of Russia and calling on Berlin to increase defence spending.
Even more provocatively, he has called on his Nato allies to commit four per cent of GDP to military spending. The current target of two per cent defence spending is met by just five Nato members, a particular source of ire for Trump, who feels Europe gets a free ride at the expense of the US.
The alliance gathering is expected to be one of the most divided in its 69-year history, with Mr Trump raising the stakes in a bitter transatlantic row between the US and Europe over defence spending, trade and America’s contribution to the continent’s security.
The American leader, speaking in Brussels after arriving in the Belgian capital, said oil and gas deals between Berlin and Moscow had seen Russia gain too much influence over the EU's largest economy.
He attacked German support for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia, the new $11 billion Baltic Sea pipeline for imports of Moscow’s gas supplies to Europe.
“Germany is totally controlled by Russia … they will be getting between 60 and 70 per cent of their energy from Russia and a new pipeline, and you tell me if that is appropriate because I think it’s not,” Mr Trump said.
“I think it is a very bad thing for Nato and I don’t think it should have happened and I think we have to talk to Germany about it. On top of that, Germany is just paying a little bit over 1 per cent [on defence] … and I think that is inappropriate also,” he added.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel hit back at her US counterpart without directly citing his comments. She said Germany makes “independent decisions” and spoke of her upbringing under Soviet rule.
"I myself have also experienced a part of Germany being occupied by the Soviet Union," Ms Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany, said.
"I am very glad that we are united today in freedom as the Federal Republic of Germany and that we can therefore also make our own independent policies and make our own independent decisions."
The back-and-forth set up a tense one-on-one meeting between the American and German leaders on Wednesday. Mr Trump has previously appeared to refuse to shake Ms Merkel’s hand, and reportedly threw two starburst candies on the table in front of her at the disastrous G7 summit last month in Charlevoix, Quebec, uttering: “here, Angela, don’t say I never give you anything.”
Read more from Jack Moore in Brussels:
As world leaders made their way for a frosty group photo ahead of the first summit session, Ms Merkel, British Prime Minister Theresa May, French President Emmanuel Macron and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau all walked ahead, while Mr Trump walked behind with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The volatile US president made his remarks before a breakfast meeting with Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who has sought to downplay Mr Trump's combative tone ahead of the summit where 29 heads of state or government will come together at the alliance's new headquarters in Brussels.
“It’s very sad when Germany makes a massive oil and gas deal with Russia where we’re supposed to be guarding against Russia and Germany goes out and pays billions and billions of dollars a year to Russia,” Mr Trump continued.
"If you look at it, Germany is a captive of Russia,” he said. “They got rid of their coal plants, they got rid of their nuclear, they're getting so much of their oil and gas from Russia. I think it is something Nato has to look at. It is very inappropriate."
According to official German data, the country imports just over a third (35.3 per cent) of its oil and gas from Russia.
Mr Stoltenberg, sitting across from Mr Trump, looked surprised by his outburst but he tried to brush off the criticism of Germany as a bilateral matter.
“It’s not for Nato to decide, it is a national decision,” the Nato chief told reporters in remarks made after the meeting.
A senior European parliament official told The National the comments were "highly controversial" and "will be very negatively perceived" in Berlin.
But the official, who declined to be named in order to discuss summit developments, said Mr Trump had a point about the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
It “supports and co-finances a Russian trojan horse,” the official said. “It undermines Europe’s energy independence and contradicts EU Energy Union principles.”
Elsewhere in Europe, Mr Trump’s comments found support. Poland said the European Union must move its energy supply away from Russia and into other sources.
"We need a diversification of supplies, this is one of the most important goals of the European Union energy union," President Andrzej Duda told reporters at the summit.
The billionaire property magnate has condemned European Nato members for failing to meet a two per cent defence spending goal agreed in 2014, despite that target being set for 2024.
Only six countries within Nato – Britain, the US, Estonia, Poland, Greece and Latvia – currently meet that target, although with new commitments several others will meet this by the end of 2018 or soon after.
But Mr Trump said that recent increases worth tens of billions in defence spending were not sufficient for Washington.
“Over the last year, about $40 billion more has been given by other countries to help Nato but that’s not nearly enough,” he told reporters.
“The United States is spending far too much and other countries are not paying enough, especially some.”
The president argues that US taxpayers are carrying the “unfair” burden of the most military spending within the alliance.
Tweeting on his way to Brussels from Washington, he said that European allies "want us to happily defend them through Nato, and nicely pay for it. Just doesn't work!"
Ms Merkel also defended Germany against Mr Trump’s repeated barbs about Berlin’s contributions to military spending.
“Germany owes a lot to Nato,” she said. "The fact that reunification has taken place also has a great deal to do with Nato, but Germany is also doing a great deal for Nato."
“We are the second largest provider of troops, we put most of our military capabilities at the service of Nato,” she said.
The US contributes 3.5 per cent of GDP to Nato defence spending, much more than other Nato countries. Germany pays 1.24 per cent of GDP on defence, the latest Nato figures show. Berlin has pledged to increase its spending by 80 per cent in the next decade. But Mr Trump remained unsatisfied by that pledge and called for an immediate increase.
"Germany is a rich country. They talk about that they can increase it a tiny bit by 2030. Well, they could increase it immediately tomorrow and have no problem. I don't think it's fair to the United States," he added.
The US leader was welcomed at the new $1.45 billion Nato headquarters ahead of a meeting of the North Atlantic Council and then a dinner for the alliance’s heads of states tonight in central Brussels.
Some of those in attendance will be the political leaders that Mr Trump chastised at the G7 gathering, where he left without signing the joint communiqué and tweeted insults at Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shortly after departing.