Saturday

20th Jan 2018

Interview

Let's not lecture Trump, says top German MP

  • EU and US sanctions on Russia are "a crucial expression of Western unity", Norbert Roettgen said. (Photo: Norbert Röttgen)

Europeans need to propose "projects of common interest" to Donald Trump and preserve "Western unity" on Russia, the chair of the German parliament's foreign affairs committee told EUobserver.

"It is difficult" to forge a relationship with the new US president, admitted Norbert Roettgen in an interview after German chancellor Angela Merkel visited Trump in Washington on 17 March.

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  • Norbert Roettgen (left) is a close ally of German chancellor Angela Merkel. (Photo: Dirk Vorderstraße)

He said Germany did not have "very high expectations" for the visit because of "evident differences in political priorities".

For instance, he noted that Merkel and Trump have "different perceptions and perhaps concepts" about trade. Their discussion, about "how to tackle a globalised economy with multilateral approaches or bilateral approach," could "only could be a starting point".

On foreign policy, Roettgen, a close ally of Merkel, noted that the outcome of the White House meeting was even "a bit below" his personal expectations.

He said that he had thought Trump "would have come a bit closer to the language" used by US vice-president Mike Pence, who came to Brussels last month to express the US "commitment" to work with the EU.

"Instead of that he presented the bill - you owe me a trillion," Roettgen deplored.

After Merkel had left, Trump tweeted that Germany "owes vast sums of money to Nato and the US". UK publication The Sunday Times even said that, according to German diplomats, Trump handed Merkel a fake $300 billion invoice. Berlin and Washington denied the report.

"You never heard the chancellor thinking, or even talking about Nato being 'obsolete'," the German MP observed, referring to the adjective used by Trump to describe the alliance in January.

Pro-active approach

Roettgen, a 51-year-old MP who has chaired the German Bundestag's foreign affairs committee since 2014, admitted that "multilateralism encounters some ideological resistance in the White House".

He insisted however that Europeans "obviously have to talk [with the Trump administration] about the very foundations of what makes up the transatlantic relationship".

"It's about to forge a multilateral alliance, by deploying multilateral tools in order to find a common approach to tackle and respond to common challenges and threats," he said.

Roettgen spoke to EUobserver in the margins of the Brussels Forum, a conference organised by the German Marshall Fund, a transatlantic think tank.

During a debate at the event, European Commission vice president Frans Timmermans said that "sooner or later reality will bite" and make the new US administration change its views.

In a recent interview, former Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski had also told EUobserver that the EU should "give Trump a chance to get educated on about how the world really works".

"I don't share this approach," the German diplomacy expert said.

He explained that the EU needed an "active approach" to engage the Trump administration, and that waiting for Trump to convert to Europe's views was "a little bit too arrogant".

"We will not be successful with an approach that entails to say: we know the world better, we try to teach you to have a better understanding and we hope that you are a good pupil that will learn the lesson," he insisted.

"If we are perceived in the White House as the teacher of the United States, and in particular of the president, I think it will be a little bit emotionally counter-productive."

"We should be pro-active and try to propose and identify projects of common interest and potentially of common success," he said, adding that security, economy, technology and trade were "potential topics of common interest".

He explained that the EU and US could try to establish "a good framework for foreign direct investment on a mutual basis", or agree on a "comprehensive political strategy" to fight terrorism coming from the Middle East.

The German MP also suggested that there were "possibilities to bring together the internet industry in the US with the manufacturing industry in Germany".

'Crucial' Russia sanctions

After Russia was suspected of trying to influence the US elections last year, Roettgen warned that the country was now "trying to influence public opinion" ahead of elections in France and Germany this year.

"There should be no doubt that Russia is absolutely determined to deploy all the tools in the Russian foreign policy toolbox," he said, pointing to "a variety of instruments … openly and through covered [up] activities".

Roettgen said that the German chancellor was "the bulwark of preserving Western unity vis-a-vis Russia" and that "after Hillary Clinton" she was "the most interesting target for Vladimir Putin".

He noted that, in Germany, there was no "candidate of a prominent party who has a stance of unconditionally lifting sanctions" on Russia.

In France, meanwhile, far-right leader Marine Le Pen is in favour of such a move, and the centre-right candidate, Francois Fillon, "is very much leaning to such a position".

Fillon's Republicans party and Merkel's Christian-Democratic Union (CDU) are both members of the European People's Party (EPP).

Roettgen admitted that there were "differences" between the CDU's views and "Fillon's personal and political relation to Russia, and to people on the Russian political scene".

Since 2014 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, France and Germany have been the main drivers of the EU's policy towards Russia, especially through the so-called Normandie Group that also counts Russia and Ukraine.

If Fillon is elected French president in May, Paris and Berlin would be at odds over relations with Moscow, especially over the issue of sanctions.

"That would not be necessarily a problem," Roettgen argued. But he immediately outlined that EU and US sanctions on Russia were "a crucial expression of Western unity".

Lifting sanctions, he said, was conditioned on Russia's implementation of the Minsk peace agreement on Ukraine, brokered by France and Germany.

"Conditionality is crucial," Roettgen insisted, adding that "Definitively, our interest would be that, in any case, we have to preserve European and Western unity on Russia."

'Authoritarian Erdogan rule'

Despite recent tensions between the EU and Turkey - with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan calling Merkel a Nazi and clashes with the Turkish community in Netherlands - Roettgen said Turkey did not represent the same kind of threat to Europe as Russia.

However, he said it was "very unfortunate" that "Turkey is turning away from the EU" and "not developing into a constructive role" to help stabilise the Middle East.

He added that Erdogan's "number one goal" was to "shift the internal political constitution from rule of law and democracy to an authoritarian Erdogan rule" by means of a constitutional referendum in April.

Erdogan is campaigning in Europe because he needs the votes of Turkish citizens living in Europe, he said.

Roettgen said he would not call tensions with Turkish communities "a destabilisation of societies", but he noted that "one effect of the referendum and campaigning in Europe is that it leads to a certain alienation between German inhabitants and citizens with Turkish roots or Turks".

He pointed that, on one hand, Turks living in Germany and German citizens with Turkish origins "are enjoying [the] freedom and security of Germany" and that, on the other hand, many of them "are voting for Erdogan to destroy the liberal and rule of law structure in Turkey".

"These parallel votes are contributing to alienating Germans and Turks, or inhabitants with Turkish roots," he said. "This is of course something we do not want".

'Mr Putin steps into French elections'

Putin treated France's anti-EU firebrand, Le Pen, as if she had already won the elections. "I have my own viewpoint ... identical to Russia's", she said.

Turkey-EU relations plumb new depths

Turkey’s EU quarrel escalated on all fronts over the weekend, amid fresh “Nazi” and “terrorism” jibes. “Not all Turks are little Erdogans,” Juncker said.

Trump expected to make Nato pledge

Nato mutual defence and the fight against Islamic State to take centre stage as US leader meets Nato and EU allies in Brussels.

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