Merkel vs. Trump at Hamburg G20

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel delivers a speech to the German Bundestag in Berlin, Germany, 29 June 2017. Merkel in her government declaration outlined the German strategy for the upcoming G20 summit. [Clemens Bilan / EPA]

As world leaders prepare to descend on Hamburg next week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel hopes to gain sufficient support to isolate US President Donald Trump on trade and climate change, writes Fraser Cameron.

Fraser Cameron is director of the EU-Asia Centre and a senior advisor with Cambre Associates, a Brussels-based consultancy.

Traditionally G20 summits are meticulously prepared in advance by a group of senior officials known as Sherpas. The final communique is often drafted and largely agreed on a couple of weeks before the leaders meet. Not this time.

As world leaders prepare to descend on Hamburg on 7-8 July the German hosts have not even circulated a draft statement, such is the gulf between Merkel’s wishes and Trump’s refusal to go along with what had previously been mainstream G 20 positions on trade and climate change.

The Europeans already had a taste of the Trump medicine at the G7 summit in Sicily in May. Trump refused to endorse either the Paris climate change agreements or the benefits of free trade.

Right after the G7 meeting, Merkel embarked on a round of meetings with fellow G20 leaders in an effort to shore up support for the Paris agreements and globalisation. She can rely not only on fellow Europeans but China and even India to back her views. She thus hopes to gain sufficient support to isolate Trump in Hamburg. But it is doubtful if isolation will lead to a change of heart by the US president.

Trump is likely to be further annoyed by the European Commission’s decision to fine Google two billion euros, quite a tidy sum even by Trump’s standards. In turn, the US Senate has angered Merkel by threatening German companies involved in the Nordstream project bringing gas from Russia to Germany. They added insult to injury by stating that Germany should instead buy liquid gas from the United States.

The president has caused further consternation by hinting that he will ban steel imports from Europe and elsewhere under the guise of protecting national security.

Trump has also shown little interest in Merkel’s other priorities which include measures to increase living standards in Africa, curb tax avoidance and reduce migration.

We can expect lots of ‘putting America first’ rhetoric from Trump, playing to his core constituency at home. But Merkel equally cannot afford to back down from her established positions. She faces elections in a couple of months and German public opinion is extremely hostile to Trump. The summit is thus shaping up to be a mighty dogfight between Merkel and Trump.

Apart from the Merkel versus Trump show, media attention will inevitably focus on the first meeting between Trump and Putin. With allegations of Russian interference in the US elections continuing to plague his administration, the world will be watching every movement of the two leaders as they pose for the cameras. Will the karate fan Putin try to pull a Macron and crush Trump’s hand? Will Trump do a Xi Xinping and call Putin ‘a great guy’?

Summits are traditionally used for bilateral meetings. President Macron will be attending his first G20 and will be sought out by other leaders. The Chinese have made clear their interest in a Xi-Macron meeting on the sidelines. As the previous G20 hosts, China has been helpful in ensuring some continuity with decisions taken in Hangzhou.

If Macron and Trump are the new kids on the block spare a thought for Theresa May. Her fellow leaders know that she is mortally wounded and unlikely to be with them for much longer. Why bother, therefore, to waste time on a bilateral with the beleaguered British prime minister?

Presidents Tusk and Juncker, in contrast, will be much in demand. The day before the summit they will have a bilateral with PM Abe in the expectation that will agree on an EU-Japan FTA. They will also have bilaterals with Russia, Brazil and Argentina.

The renewed self-confidence of the EU contrasts with its situation twelve months ago when it was facing a wave of populism, the refugee crisis, a sluggish economy and Brexit. Now the populists are in retreat, the refugee crisis under control, the economy growing again and Brexit looking more and more like a huge mistake.

Europe can thus stand full-square behind Merkel and give her full support in the showdown with Trump on the Elbe. It has all the makings of a fascinating fight.