Von der Leyen and Trump fine tune transatlantic relations in Davos

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen meets US President Donald Trump during the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum 2020 in Davos, Switzerland, 21 January 2020. [Stephan Wermuth/EPA]

European Commission president Ursula Von der Leyen met US President Donald Trump in Davos on Tuesday (21 January) and vowed to move forward the transatlantic agenda after a period of tense relations and trade threats between the two allies.

“As a European and a committed transatlantic, it was important to me to emphasise the unbreakable bonds between our societies and economies,” von der Leyen said in a statement following the meeting. 

In spite of the tensions in a number of areas, the Commission president has shown some common cause with the US, particularly regarding the Iran crisis. The first meeting between the two since she took office in December, the Commission president said it was “a good opportunity to connect personally” with President Trump.

The encounter, which took place in the margins of the forum, was described by von der Leyen’s team as “a friendly exchange of views between allies” to “compare notes and positions on a number of topical issues, notably on trade, technology and energy.” 

Commissioners for Trade, Phil Hogan, and Commissioner for the Internal Market Thierry Breton were also in the room but refrained from addressing the press.

Trade tensions 

Transatlantic relations have been on a rough path since Trump arrived at the White House, large due to a number of ongoing trade disputes, including the US imposition of tariffs on European exports of aluminium and steel.

Trade talks between the US and the EU have been long been at a standstill.

Von der Leyen wants to change that. And so does Trump. “We’ve been talking about it for a while, and hopefully we can get something done,” he told the Commission president. “A deal between ourselves and essentially Europe is something that we all want to be able to make,” he added.

Trade commissioner Hogan was in Washington last week for the first time to meet US counterpart Robert Lighthizer and pave the way for new trade talks.

“I am looking forward to working with President Trump on the opportunities and challenges ahead of us. I am convinced that we can engage in a positive US-EU agenda in trade, as well as on technology, energy and much more besides,” von der Leyen said.

According to the readout shared by the White House, Trump told von der Leyen he had heard she is “a tough negotiator”. This, he added, “is bad news for us because we’re going to talk about a big trade deal.”

One year after the US-EU joint statement, how are transatlantic trade relations doing?

In July 2018, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker travelled to the US to meet Donald Trump in a bid to ease trade tensions. A year on from the EU-US joint statement, commercial negotiations are at a stalemate.

Trump being Trump 

Hours before meeting von der Leyen, Trump addressed the World Economic Forum. In a speech with a rather domestic angle – hours before the start of an impeachment process against him and with elections in November – Trump bragged about US economic performance during his administration.

“Every decision we make on trade, tax, regulation, energy, immigration, education and more are focused on improving the lives of everyday Americans,” Trump told the audience. 

Trump also trumpeted his record on trade policy, including agreements with Mexico and Canada and the recently opened talks with China, following a serious trade crisis. “Our relationship with China right now has probably never been better,” he claimed.

“China has agreed to substantially do things that they would not have done before,” the US president said, listing a number of concessions by Beijing, covering measures to protect intellectual property, stop forced technology transfers, remove barriers in agricultural goods and open their financial sector.

The US President did not mention transatlantic trade ties in his speech. He did, however, urge European countries to buy American gas, as agreed on the joint statement he signed with former Commissioner chief Jean-Claude Juncker in July 2018. 

“With an abundance of American natural gas now available, our European allies now no longer have to be vulnerable to unfriendly energy suppliers either,” he said. “We urge our friends in Europe use America’s vast supply and achieve true energy security,” Trump added. 

‘Freedom gas’: US opens LNG floodgates to Europe

US energy secretary Rick Perry will sign two export orders for liquefied natural gas (LNG) in Brussels today (2 May), in a move officials said will double America’s export capacity to Europe to 112 billion cubic meters per year as of 2020.

The US president also had a few words for the UK, as the country is set to depart from the EU next week. He praised Boris Johnson and said he was “looking forward” to sign a “wonderful trade deal” with London.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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