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Germany reacts to Juncker-Trump trade deal

July 26, 2018

German politicians and business leaders have welcomed the agreement that Jean-Claude Juncker made with Donald Trump. But some wonder whether the US president will stick to his word.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and U.S. President Donald Trump walk down the West Wing colonnade
Image: Reuters/J. Roberts

German politicians and business leaders reacted with relief, surprise, and some skepticism to the apparent trade tariff breakthrough that European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker achieved on his trip to Washington to meet US President Donald Trump.

German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier was among the first to express his approval, tweeting that the new deal would "avoid trade war & save millions of jobs!"

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas also took to Twitter to declare Juncker's negotiations a triumph for European solidarity. "The agreement in the trade row has shown that when Europe presents a united front our word has weight," the minister tweeted. "We are not opponents of the USA. Hopefully that insight will once again mature into what it was not long ago: something that goes without saying."

The optimism was echoed through Angela Merkel's official channels, with the chancellor's deputy spokeswoman, Ulrike Demmer, saying that the government welcomed the agreement, and that the "EU Commission could continue to rely on our support."

Read more: Opinion: EU solidarity successful against Donald Trump

'A step away from the abyss'

But many of the reactions were marked by relief rather than optimism, given Trump's aggressive rhetoric towards Europe in recent weeks. Ahead of Wednesday's meeting, the president had accused the EU of not being interested in lowering tariffs at all. 

Possibly for that reason, Germany's business chiefs were a little more cautious. "The solutions that have been presented are moving in the right direction, but a proper portion of skepticism remains," said Eric Schweitzer, president of the Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry (DIHK). "We're still some distance away from equal negotiations. The unjustified car tariffs are not completely off the table."

Dieter Kempf, the president of the Federation of German Industries (BDI), made similar noises, telling the DPA news agency: "The spiral of tariffs in trans-Atlantic trade has been stopped for now. Now these words have to be followed by action."

Holger Schmieding, chief economist at the Berenberg Bank, offered perhaps the pithiest comment: "It's not a proper deal, but it's a step away from the abyss."

Meanwhile, opposition political parties pointed out that Trump had developed a reputation for reversing his decisions, or even denying his own statements. Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, deputy leader of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), would only say that "it remains to be seen," whether the agreement would be work out. The US president "has often shown himself to be unpredictable," he told DW. 

Nevertheless, Lambsdorff welcomed the move as a "positive signal."

"As Europeans we should leave nothing untried to stop a trade war. But the EU should not allow itself to be divided in the attempt," he said.

Katharina Dröge, trade policy spokeswoman for the Green party, also argued that the deal included unpleasant concessions to the US, which, she said, contains "the most problematic parts" of the old free trade agreement TTIP. "So the EU has entered into a game on Trump's terms. Juncker hasn't produced a solution, just medium-term conflicts within the EU," she told DW.

Other politicians were more scathing. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) EU trade specialist Bernd Lange said bluntly, "That wasn't a success, what Mr Juncker negotiated over there." Speaking to public radio station Deutschlandfunk, Lange said Juncker had barely won any gains from Trump, and criticized the fact that US steel and aluminum tariffs were still in place.

That was echoed by some in Brussels. Dutch MEP Marietje Schaake, of the liberal ALDE party said the steel tariffs remained a major problem. "Remember for a month we've heard 'the EU will not negotiate with a proverbial gun to its head, [that] we will not negotiate under pressure,'" she told DW's Teri Schultz. "And to be frank, the image now emerges that the EU has negotiated under pressure, pressure of more tariffs, this time on cars and that it has conceded a number of things in order to get rid of this threat."

Schaake, who was a negotiator in the TTIP talks, also contrasted the current negotiations between the EU and North America with her own experience. "Those were following a fairly structured and normal path for negotiations," she said. "They were complicated. They were comprehensive. There were a lot of questions, but what we see now is there is no structure and there's not even consensus on the importance of the rules-based trading system, on the importance of the WTO, there is no mandate to negotiate the same way we did under TTIP. We're in an entirely new situation under President Trump." 

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight