On a Mission, Macron and Merkel Come to Washington
President Donald Trump will host President Emmanuel Macron of France for a state visit April 23–25, and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany will pay a working visit to Washington on April 27. This will be President Macron’s first visit to the White House as president, but the French and U.S. leaders have developed a close working relationship after a rocky period at the start of President Trump’s term, including the withdrawal of the United States from the French-led Paris Climate Accord. This will be their third meeting, following a bilateral in Brussels during the May 2017 NATO leaders meeting and President Trump’s visit to Paris for the July 14, 2017, Bastille Day celebrations. In addition to a private dinner with President Trump, and a State Dinner and bilateral meetings at the White House followed by a joint press conference, President Macron will address a joint session of Congress on April 25 and hold a public town-hall style meeting at George Washington University, bringing wide public exposure to the visit and to Franco-American relations.
At the end of the week, President Trump will welcome Chancellor Merkel to the Oval Office. It will be their third meeting, following Merkel’s March 2017 trip to Washington and Trump’s July 2017 visit to Hamburg for the G-20 Summit. After September 2017 elections and taking six months to form a government, Merkel has begun her fourth term leading Europe’s largest country and most prosperous economy, at the head of a coalition of her Christian Democratic bloc with the Social Democrats. Merkel and Germany have been on the receiving end of some of President Trump’s most direct criticism, focused on the country’s refugee policy, its trade surplus in goods with the United States, and its low defense spending as a percentage of gross domestic product. From the war in Syria to the possible imminent withdrawal of the United States from the Iran nuclear deal to relations with Russia and China and the Trump administration’s imposition of tariffs, President Macron and Chancellor Merkel will have plenty to discuss with President Trump this week in Washington.
Q1: Can the Europeans save the Iran nuclear deal?
A1: President Trump has called on European leaders to fix what he calls major flaws in the Iran nuclear deal and has set a May 12 deadline, threatening to withdraw the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The president has outlined four key areas that he wants to see addressed to prevent the United States from withdrawing. Two are outside the scope of the JCPOA: Iran’s ballistic missile programs and its destabilizing behavior in the region. Within the nuclear deal itself, the Trump administration is demanding tougher inspections of nuclear sites and the removal of the JCPOA’s sunset provisions, which gradually allow Iran to resume some nuclear activities at certain future dates.
The United States and its European counterparts (France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the European Union) have been negotiating throughout 2018 to see what additional measures can be agreed on. Europe reportedly is open to further action on the regional and ballistic missile issues, but EU foreign ministers reportedly first want assurances that Washington would remain in the nuclear deal. President Macron may comment on the JCPOA in his address to the joint session of Congress, allowing him to reach not only the legislators who passed U.S. sanctions on Iran, but to gain wider public recognition of France’s (and Europe’s) position.
Q2: Are the United States and Europe on the same page on Syria?
A2: The leaders come to Washington shortly after the United States, France, and the United Kingdom launched 105 missiles at Syrian government targets in response to an apparent regime chemical attack in the town of Douma. Presidents Trump and Macron were in frequent contact as they deliberated on their response. Despite the unity they displayed in reinforcing the norm against chemical weapons use, France remains concerned about whether the United States will remain engaged in Syria. President Trump has consistently said he wants to “totally destroy ISIS” but not commit U.S. troops indefinitely to the greater regional conflict. France wants Western diplomatic efforts to accompany the military action and is concerned about a premature departure of U.S. forces. Germany did not participate in the recent strikes but expressed support for the action. Both Paris and Berlin will look for a clear U.S. policy toward the complex geopolitical issues in Syria, including the international talks and the future shape of the Syrian government, how to address the roles of Iran and Russia, defeating ISIS, addressing the humanitarian issues, including the continued flow of migrants to Europe, and cooperation with Turkey and other powers in the region.
Q3: Will the visits be overshadowed by a threat of U.S. tariffs?
A3: Last month, President Trump announced tariffs on foreign aluminum and steel, leading to an outcry from the European Union, which threatened retaliatory measures on U.S. exports to Europe. The United States granted the European Union a temporary exemption from steel and aluminum tariffs, which expires on May 1. Chancellor Merkel and President Macron will want to see the exemptions made permanent and more broadly will want to prevent a transatlantic trade war, which would be a lose-lose proposition for the European Union and the United States.
At the same time, there is rising concern in the European Union about China’s economic ambitions and its growing role in the European economy. China’s investment in Europe has risen by over 1,500 percent since 2010, most notably in struggling economies in eastern and southern Europe, where many EU members fear that China’s “16+1” format seeks to divide EU members to China’s political and economic advantage.
The United States and many EU members share similar concerns about Chinese trade practices, including competition with companies that receive government subsidies, intellectual property theft, lack of reciprocal access in China, and mandatory technology transfer. Germany and France will seek U.S. cooperation to resolve these concerns, but only through the systems and structures like the World Trade Organization that have been preserved throughout the postwar period.
Q4: Where does Russia fit into the picture?
A4: Policy toward Russia also will play a crucial role in the visits of President Macron and Chancellor Merkel. Russia’s protection of the Syrian government in the face of evidence of chemical weapons use has drawn harsh criticism from Washington, Paris, and Berlin. The United States and Europe have coordinated their positions for years on sanctions related to Russia’s intervention in eastern Ukraine and seizure of Crimea. More recent U.S. sanctions on Russian oligarchs, and contemplated sanctions related to Syria, have not been coordinated transatlantic efforts. The United States and Europe acted jointly in response to the Salisbury, UK, nerve agent attack, though President Trump reportedly was frustrated that French and German expulsions of Russian diplomats were not more robust.
France and Germany have been critical of Russian actions across the board. In 2017, both countries faced Russian influence in their elections, as happened in the 2016 U.S. election cycle. Concern about Russia’s conventional and nuclear modernization and its increasingly aggressive actions provide ample opportunity for greater transatlantic coordination on Russia policy.
President Macron and Chancellor Merkel will both emphasize the strong political, economic, and security bonds between Europe and the United States and seek to deepen the working relationship with the Trump administration, cooperation that will be vital given the many challenges ahead for the transatlantic relationship.
Jeffrey Rathke is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Max Shafron is a research assistant in the CSIS Europe Program.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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