By Noah Barkin
BERLIN (Reuters) – A controlled and cautious, an East German physicist who takes her time making decisions and has never enjoyed the attention that being Europe’s most powerful leader brings her.
He’s a wealthy New York real estate mogul who shoots from the hip and enjoys the spotlight.
It’s hard to imagine two leaders more different, in style or substance, than Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, and Donald Trump, the new president of the United States.
For months, they have been involved in an uncomfortable long-distance skirmish over politics and values.
On Tuesday, they meet for the first time: a high-stakes gathering that will be watched by governments around the world for clues about the future of the transatlantic alliance, a partnership that has helped shape the global order since World War II. World Cup but that Trump is threatening to overturn.
“I think they are going to become good friends? Probably not. They are very different personalities,” said Charles Kupchan, who advised Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama on European politics as a member of the National Security Council.
“But I do think they have a great interest, both politically and strategically, in learning to work together. It is arguably the most important meeting with a foreign leader of the Trump presidency.”
German officials say detail-oriented Merkel, 62, has been assiduously preparing for her trip to Washington.
She has watched Trump’s speeches and dealt with his interviews, including a lengthy question-and-answer session with Playboy magazine from 1990 in which he lays out many of the controversial ideas he is now trying to implement as president, they say.
Members of his entourage have also discussed Trump’s encounters with other leaders, including Britain’s Theresa May, Japan’s Shinzo Abe, and Canada’s Justin Trudeau, and have had exchanges with some of their counterparts on how to handle the unpredictable former star. reality TV shows, officials added. .
“We have to be prepared for the fact that he does not like to listen for long, that he prefers clear positions and does not want to go into detail,” said a senior German official.
In both economic and foreign policy, the division between the two leaders seems huge.
Trump, 70, has called Merkel’s decision to allow hundreds of thousands of refugees into Germany a “catastrophic mistake.”
It has threatened to impose tariffs on German automakers that import into the US market. And he has criticized Berlin for not spending more on defense, a long-standing American complaint that Merkel has vowed to address.
Another source of tension is Germany’s € 50 billion trade surplus with the United States.
Trump’s adviser Peter Navarro has accused Germany of obtaining unfair trade advantages through a weak euro. Merkel and her ministers have pointed out that the European Central Bank, and not Berlin, controls the fate of the single European currency.
Russia will also be on the agenda. White House officials have said Trump will seek Merkel’s advice on how to deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
For her part, Merkel has criticized Trump’s travel ban aimed at citizens of several mainly Muslim countries. In a phone call in January, he explained to Trump that the Geneva Convention obliges signatories, including the United States, to receive war refugees on humanitarian grounds.
Merkel is also concerned that Trump, who has repeatedly praised Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, may continue to undermine the bloc with his rhetoric at a time of deep crisis sparked by the rise of populist anti-EU parties.
“Europe is in a very fragile and precarious state and Germany is trying to ensure that the European integration project stays together. I suspect that the chancellor will want to make this clear to the president,” said Anthony Gardner, who served as ambassador of states. United in the European Union until January.
“This is an opportunity to outline areas of common interest, to define a positive agenda,” he added. “But a meeting will not change the atmosphere by itself.”
POTENTIAL FOR SURPRISES
Trump is the third president of the United States with whom Merkel, the longest-serving European leader, has worked.
He established a good relationship with George W. Bush, who was eager to repair ties with Germany after his confrontation with Merkel’s predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, over the Iraq war.
And while relations with Obama got off to an awkward start when Merkel declined his request to speak at the Brandenburg Gate during the 2008 presidential campaign, the two eventually grew closer, cooperated on sanctions against Russia, and launched negotiations on an agreement on Russia. transatlantic free trade. .
“Farewell is difficult for me,” Merkel acknowledged when Obama visited Berlin in November, a week after Trump’s victory.
The German leader will walk a fine line in Washington. With an election looming in his country in September, he should avoid offering ammunition to his political opponents by flirting with Trump. Nor can an open confrontation be allowed that could harm German interests.
One of the biggest concerns in the chancellor’s field before the visit is the potential for surprises.
Japan’s Abe had an awkward 19-second handshake with Trump, while May was criticized in some sections of the British media for holding Trump’s hand during a walk through the White House, apparently after he got close. to stabilize.
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Trump last month, he and his team spent the previous day going through endless scenarios, question lines, and role plays to make sure they were prepared for any scenario.
But in the end, they were still baffled when Trump spoke spontaneously at his press conference on the sensitive issues of settlements and a future Palestinian state.
Merkel has admitted to being so uncomfortable with surprises as a child that she drew up her Christmas wish list months in advance to avoid being caught off guard by an unexpected gift.
With Trump, you may have to expect the unexpected.