The visits to Washington made by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were milestone occasions in the evolution of relations between the US and its partners across the pond. An adjustment of their ties is long overdue. It is prompted by the profound changes taking place in the world highlighted by Britain’s exit from the EU and the election of Donald Trump as President of the US. The main motto of the new White House incumbent, “America First,” means a transition from multilateral compromise solutions thrashed out within Euro-Atlantic structures to a direct dialogue with individual allies “from a position of strength” and a shift of some of the military-political costs and financial burdens towards NATO partners. At the same time Brexit would deprive London of its traditional role of a privileged intermediary between the U.S. and continental Europe for an indefinitely long period of time.
This role now passes to the Franco-German tandem which has from the outset been the main driver of European integration. Until recently, as late as under President Obama, Germany, the EU’s economic heavyweight, played first fiddle in the dialog with Washington. However, Angela Merkel’s lackluster showing in the last Bundestag elections and the travails of forming a new, fourth, government pushed to the foreground in the dialog with Washington the young, dynamic and ambitious French President, Emmanuel Macron. This is not to say that the tandem on whose unity hinges the far-reaching program of EU modernization proposed by Paris is falling apart. It was no accident that Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel held a meeting ahead of their visits to Washington to agree upon their positions as well as to determine the questions each of them would discuss when they met Donald Trump.
The French president’s main concern is Trump’s decision to walk away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that would freeze Iran’s nuclear program signed back in 2015 by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany on the one hand and Iran on the other, and to withdraw American special forces from Syria. A harbinger of such unilateral actions which caused chagrin in Paris was Trump’s refusal to take part in the 2015 Paris climate change agreement.
Angela Merkel’s main worry is Trump’s decision to slap protectionist tariffs on the import of steel, aluminum and especially German cars, which threatens to unleash a trade war with the EU.
Donald Trump accorded pointedly different receptions to each of the two guests, which carried a political message. The young French president was given the highest state honors complete with gala dinners on behalf of the presidential couple at the White House and at the historical Mount Vernon retreat of the founder of the USA, George Washington, the guest addressing a joint session of Congress punctuated with ovations, exchange of gifts and so on.
On top of all this, throughout the three-day visit Trump in addition to the usual courtesies, went out of his way to stress his personal sympathy by constant handshakes, hugs, compliments in response, as he put it, to the hospitality accorded to him when he attended the military parade on July 14, 2017, the storming of Bastille day, which is the main French national holiday.
Such a show of emotion was sometimes counter-productive considering Trump’s controversial image in Europe and the age gap, it looked somewhat condescending and even somewhat embarrassing for Macron. “To flatter Trump is one thing, but to win substantial diplomatic or trade concessions in return is something quite different. All the signs are that Macron has succeeded only on the first count.” This skeptical comment came from Dominique Moisi, foreign policy expert at the Institut Montaigne which is close to French business circles.
This came at an awkward time when Macron’s radical reforms of the public sector, especially transport and higher education, prompted mass protests – strikes, demos, and street rioting – causing a drop in the president’s approval rating.
All this was in striking contrast to the courteous, but strictly business like atmosphere that marked the two-day working visit to Washington made by Chancellor Angela Merkel, a veteran of European politics: she had to be content with a two-hour talk, a working breakfast and a press conference.
However, the difference in the level and tonality of Trump’s reception of the two European leaders, which was very much in line with his manner of doing business, had little impact on the compromise solutions of disputed matters each of them proposed.
Emmanuel Macron argued for the preservation of the Iran deal and for complementing it with a more durable one that would also include limitations on Iran’s ballistic missile program and Tehran’s activity in the region. Angela Merkel for her part tried to get an exemption for the EU from the US program of raising steel and aluminum tariffs in exchange for concessions to the US over the car export issue. In spite of being backed by Britain, the tandem’s initiative was flatly rejected by Teheran, which was backed by Russia and China. The US response was to postpone its decision to scrap the Iran nuclear deal and the introduction of steel and aluminum tariffs for the EU by one month, from May 1 to June 1 this year.
Washington’s tough stand is due in large measure to the fact that the bargaining among NATO allies over Transatlantic relations is taking place against the background of a dramatic rise of tension in the world which has been thrown back to the Cold War times. The attempts to mitigate the differences of interests within the Euro-Atlantic structures by stressing the need to defend common values through confrontation with Iran and ultimately with Russia and China inevitably reduces the chances of the European partners in their conflicts of interests with the US regardless of whom Washington chooses as the privileged interlocutor.
Characteristically, one of Macron’s first international steps shortly after his inauguration on May 14, 2017 was to invite Russian President Putin to Versailles to take part in celebrations marking the 300th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between France and Russia under Peter I. In spite of the spotty record of the Russo-French dialog on the more acute situations (Syria, Iran, Ukraine, sanctions, chemical weapons, etc.) the French President was anxious to act as a broker between the EU and the US and also in a way between the West and East as a whole, something de Gaulle was rather successful at doing even during the time of the Cold War. Significantly, before his state visit to Washington, Macron visited China and India, and after the visit discussed with the Russian president by phone the Iran nuclear deal and political settlement in Syria confirming that he would take part as a guest of honor in the St. Petersburg Economic Forum in May 2018.