Saturday

23rd Mar 2019

Trump and Kurz: not best friends, after all

The current rift in transatlantic relations seems to be deepening by the day.

The visit of the Austrian chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, to the White House on Wednesday (20 February) - the first such summit in 13 years - only underlined this even further.

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  • White House: The US is Austria's second biggest trading partner after Germany (Photo: Tracy Russo)

And this is despite the fact that Trump and Kurz share a common conservative agenda and a number of foreign policy goals.

They share a similar stance on migration.

Trump just declared a "national emergency" to gain access to billions of dollars to pay for a border wall with Mexico.

Meanwhile, Kurz is known in Europe for having closed the so-called 'Balkan route' to refugees trying to reach Austria and Germany via south-eastern Europe.

When Austria held the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union in the second half of 2018, Kurz also pushed for strengthening the EU's external borders and for increasing the number of border guards of the EU border agency.

Just like the US, Austria also withdrew from the UN migration pact, causing much dismay in many other European capitals.

Israel

Kurz and Trump also pursue a similar policy towards Israel.

Trump has excellent relations with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He moved the US embassy to Jerusalem and supports Israel in every way.

The Austrian chancellor also undertook a significant policy shift during his last visit to Israel in June 2018 when he ended the so-called 'Kreisky-Doctrin' from the 1970s, which had viewed Israel's role in the Middle East conflict in critical and neutral way.

"The security of Israel is non-negotiable," Kurz said. For him, this was a matter of "national interest for Austria".

But it seems that it was more the issues that divide Europe and the US which dominated Wednesday's talks at the White House.

Kurz and Trump held a private conversation for 30 minutes, which was followed by a longer meeting between both delegations, also joined by US vice-president Mike Pence, secretary of state Mike Pompeo, and national security advisor John Bolton.

Aware of the delicate mission, Kurz phoned European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker just before he departed for Washington.

"Trump has very strong opinions, he is very direct, and not always very diplomatic, especially with regard to topics that are important to him such, as trade between the US and the EU," Kurz said in an interview with the Austrian television ORF, immediately following his meeting at the White House.

"We argued against this and therefore the discussions were very controversial," he added.

Trade

The US is Austria's second biggest trading partner after Germany and finding a solution to the trade dispute is in Vienna's interest.

When asked about the possibly of tariffs to be imposed on European cars, Kurz said that "he (Trump) is using this as a threat and he is trying to exert pressure, even if he continues to mention that the talks are ongoing".

"I believe that Trump is indeed ready to conclude an agreement with the EU. We, as the EU, want that, but positions are very far apart. While no decision has been taken yet, we cannot exclude that tariffs will be imposed," Kurz added.

Trump himself also told press on Thursday that car tariffs remained a possibility.

"We are negotiating with them [the EU]. If we don't make the deal, we will do the tariffs," the US leader said, referring to talks on a free-trade deal.

Kurz added in his ORF interview that Trump was adamantly opposed to Germany's plan to build a new gas pipeline with Russia called Nord Stream 2, involving Austrian energy firm OMV.

"We in Austria are supporting this project because we have an interest in securing our gas supply", the chancellor said.

When asked about the opinion of some observers and diplomats - that Trump's ultimate aim was to weaken and even destroy the EU - Kurz said that he did not entirely share this view.

"Trump's main focus is the US. He believes that the US is unfairly treated in the areas of trade and military spending. These two topics overshadow everything else", he said,

Friends?

Trump's request for Austria to increase its military spending also did not go down well.

As a neutral country, Austria has a long tradition of supporting international law and has spoke out in favour of international disarmament.

"We are taking our own decisions when it comes to how we spend our budget," Kurz said.

"We argued that we instead prefer to spend more money on education, research, development, and internal security", he added.

Trump, on Wednesday also praised Austria as a "beautiful" country and joked that the 32-year old Austrian leader was "a very young guy".

But while new avenues of transatlantic cooperation are badly needed, it seems that Trump and Kurz did not become best friends despite their many shared opinions.

The EU's relations with the US were going through a "difficult period", the EU's ambassador in Washington, David O'Sulllivan, told Irish broadcaster RTE the same day as Kurz came to town.

"The disruptive policies practiced by this [US] administration are inevitably going to disrupt," O'Sulllivan said.

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