After Macron’s two-day Trump charm offensive, Merkel plays “bad cop” in Washington

Mutti knows best.
Mutti knows best.
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo
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Angela Merkel won’t be showered with the pomp and praise that marked Emmanuel Macron’s state visit to Washington this week—let alone with any touch-feely back rubs. The German chancellor comes armed with spreadsheets, rather than Gallic charm, and has just a couple of hours to try and head off Trump’s looming aluminum-and-steel tariffs and protect German businesses.

The temporary exemption from the import tariffs is expected to expire on May 1, and Merkel is under pressure from business leaders back home to get Trump to agree to an extension, as the tariffs would wallop production-powerhouse Germany.

“In Germany, every fourth job depends on exports. In the industrial sectors, it’s more than every second job,” said Dieter Kempf, head of Germany’s BDI industrial lobby, noting that the tariff topic is turning into a major test of the trans-Atlantic relationship. During her working lunch, Merkel will aim to explain, using her facts and figures, how tariffs are bad for jobs on both sides of the Atlantic. Meanwhile, the EU has threatened retaliatory tariffs on North American products like jeans, motorcycles, and whiskey.

Good cop—bad cop

Macron and Merkel want the same key things from Trump: to persuade him against further US trade protectionism, and keep him from pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal. However, while Macron’s relationship with the president is quite the bromance, his relationship with Merkel has been marked by frostiness and criticism on both sides.

Macron has worked hard to build something akin to a friendship with Trump, speaking to him on the phone, inviting him to France’s Bastille Day celebrations, and joining the US in its recent military strikes on Syria.

Meanwhile Merkel, who has been distracted by trying to form a government since late last year, reportedly hadn’t spoken with Trump for months until recently. She hasn’t held back from thinly veiled criticism of the president, saying that Europe must take control of its own destiny. While she issued a statement approving the US strike on Syria, German military didn’t join the mission.

There’s not a lot of love for Trump among Germans—one survey revealed they regard him as a bigger problem than Russia or North Korea—so Merkel isn’t really under any pressure to cosy up to him. Trump for his part has been scathing about Germany’s trade surplus, and openly declared war on the country’s mighty car industry. The sector hit back warning that slapping tariffs on EU cars creates “only losers.”

Despite Trump’s obvious admiration of Macron, there is little evidence that the French president has so far been able to achieve with charm what Merkel is attempting to do with her unique brand of pragmatic persuasion. Either way, we can expect their press conference on Friday evening to be as painfully awkward as the one in March last year.