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German leaders reject Trump interview

Jefferson Chase
January 16, 2017

Across the board German politicians, including Angela Merkel, and policy experts have sharply criticized a pair of controversial Donald Trump interviews. But they differ on how to react and what the future might bring.

USA Donald Trump im Interview mit Kai Diekmann
Image: picture alliance/dpa/BILD/D. Biskup

Reactions in Germany on Monday to a pair of newspaper interviews in which US President-elect Donald Trump lambasted Chancellor Angela Merkel ranged from wait-and-see to out-and-out dismay. As is her wont, Merkel took the former approach.

"I'm personally waiting for his inauguration [on Friday], as is proper," the chancellor said in Berlin. "Then we'll work with him on all levels. He has just stated his positions, which have been known for quite some time. My positions are also known."

Deutschland | BK Merkel empfängt den Premierminister von Neuseeland Bill English
Merkel's remarks came as she met with the prime minister of New ZealandImage: Reuters/F. Bensch

Others were less circumspect. The chairman of the German parliament's foreign affairs committee, conservative Norbert Röttgen, told German public radio that the future US president had contradicted himself throughout his interviews with Germany's Bild newspaper and The Times in London. Röttgen's Social Democratic colleagues concurred.

"I think the interview has left everyone scratching their heads because it's not clear what the policies of the future US president are," Bundestag deputy speaker Ulla Schmidt of the SPD told Deutsche Welle. "It's also surprising that someone gives in an interview before he's even taken office in which he takes a critical tone toward Germany, calls NATO into question and talks about imposing punitive tariffs. Especially when everyone professionally involved in politics knows that these things can't be put into practice. I thought it was a bit much."

"Donald Trump's statements are contradictory, non-objective and self-serving," SPD foreign policy expert Rolf Mützenich added to DW.

It's hardly surprising that many Germans don't like the positions Trump espoused on what he called Germany's "catastrophic" stance toward refugees or on NATO, the EU and international trade. The question is: how do Germany's political and non-political leaders think the country should try to respond?

NATO criticism an opportunity for Russia?

There was an immediate political outcry against Trump's characterization of NATO as "obsolete" and ineffective against terrorism as well as his contention that most members failed to pay their fair share of the costs. 

Henning Riecke, the head of the Transatlantic Relations program at the independent think tank German Council on Foreign Relations, agreed that individual members states might contribute more financially and that NATO could perhaps be used somewhat more against terrorists. But on the whole, Riecke said Trump dramatically overstated and misstated the reality of the situation.

"These two points show a profound misunderstanding of what NATO is and what it's able to do," Riecke told DW. "The fact that the US covers most of the costs ensures America's military predominance in Europe. And NATO isn't designed to fight terrorism. Terrorism is not a problem that can primarily be combated with military means. It's is a problem for law enforcement, secret services and domestic integration policies."

But even if Trump doesn't understand NATO, the bloc can't do without America. Riecke suggested that European countries could volunteer to shoulder more of the costs for things like NATO research and development and thus show a willingness to reduce America's burden. But would that be enough? Or is the future of the world's most powerful military alliance really in jeopardy? Riecke says it could be.

"I think there are risks," Riecke explained. "I can imagine if Trump keeps saying that NATO isn't that important to him that the Russians will test out whether he means this seriously. They might challenge NATO in the Balkans or in Turkey to see whether America plays along in the hopes of showing that the alliance has been fatally weakened because the biggest member is no longer on board."

Infografik A brief history of Trump's controversial remarks about Europe

Overtures or opposition from the EU?

If Trump was skeptical about NATO, he was positively dismissive about the European Union, praising the Brexit, predicting that more member states would quit the bloc and hinting at least that the US could offer such states bilateral trade deals.

German politicians were hardly amused by these sentiments, although Schmidt sought to take some of the heat out of the discussion.

"I think we should take a more relaxed approach and try to further strengthen the ties between the EU and the Americans," she said. "I hope that through the cooperation in organizations, be it the UN or the G20 or G7 summit, the US president is better integrated than is apparently the case at the moment."

Trump made no secret of the fact that he would prefer to deal with individual nations - a tendency many in Germany find dangerous.

"His harmless portrayal of nationalism is a byproduct of his short-term, divide-and-conquer mentality," Mützenich said. "We can only hope that Europeans confront this sort of power politics with common interests and moral ideals."

Meanwhile, Merkel merely remarked that "we Europeans have our fate in our own hands."

Fahnen Deutschland US EU
There could be dark days ahead for US-European relationsImage: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/E. Contini

The beef with BMW

In one of the more specific moments of the speech, Trump threatened to impose a 35 percent punitive import tax on BMW for any cars made outside the US but intended for the American market.

The multinational carmaker with German headquarters, which plans to open a plant in Mexico in two years, issued a statement on Monday pointing out that it was also a US company and saying the Mexican plant would replace facilities already outside the US. German trade and industry representatives reacted strongly against the suggested tax.

"Donald Trump's remarks call into question our existing trade architecture and traditional forms of economic cooperation," the President of the German Chambers of Commerce and Industry Eric Schweitzer told DW. "The import tariff he's threatened would de facto negate the free trade zone between the US and Mexico, which would also affect German companies. I can't imagine it would conform to the rules of the World Trade Organization."

That could lead to lawsuits that would be costly for all concerned.

"Germany and the US are connected by a long and intense tradition of economic and political cooperation," Schweitzer said. "This should also be the case in the future - otherwise, in the end, everyone will lose out."

The office or the man?

BMW Werk in Spartanburg
BMW also manufactures cars in South CarolinaImage: BMW AG

Trump's two interviews have divided the political class in Berlin into optimists and pessimists, and nowhere is that difference of opinion more clearly apparent than within the SPD. The optimists hope that influences within other branches of the US government will lead Trump to moderate his views and vocabulary once he moves into the Oval Office.

"I hope that the Congress and the House of Representatives, even with a Republican majority, will impose some limits in the long term," Schmidt said. "I hope that not the man changes the office, but the office changes the man."

But SPD defense spokesman Rainer Arnold says that there was no reason to hope for a more centrist President Trump.

"Anyone who thought Trump would be more moderate after he was elected will find himself disappointed," Arnold told DW. "He is what he is: an irresponsible egomaniac. I see no cause to believe that he'll become reasonable. I think it will be a terrible presidency."