US President Barack Obama gave a strong endorsement of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and used a visit to Berlin yesterday (17 November) to warn Russia about consequences for intervening in the US election and prod Donald Trump to hold firm against Moscow.
On a sentimental final trip to Germany as president, Obama expressed hope that the New York businessman who has never previously held public office would jettison controversial campaign rhetoric when he entered the White House and keep democratic values in mind as he chose his staff.
Obama, who along with Merkel called for sanctions to be renewed until Russia complied with international agreements, said he hoped Trump would be pragmatic in dealing with Washington’s former Cold War foe.
“My hope is that he does not simply take a realpolitik approach and suggest that we just cut some deals with Russia even if it hurts people, even if it violates international norms or even if it leaves smaller countries vulnerable or creates long term problems in countries like Syria,” Obama said.
Obama said he had spoken to Putin before the US election about cyber attacks that US officials said were an attempt to influence the presidential race and told him Washington would respond appropriately. Moscow has dismissed the allegation.
Hard to say goodbye
Merkel, a Russian speaker who grew up in the former East Germany, has helped lead European efforts to sanction Russia.
She and Obama forged a particularly close relationship, and his stop in Berlin on his farewell tour reflected that.
“The parting is hard for me,” Merkel acknowledged, adding she had to accept that the US constitution limited a president’s time in office to eight years, drawing a wink and a smile from Obama.
No such limits exist in Germany, and Merkel has declined to say whether she will run in a general election next year in which her conservatives are expected to remain the largest bloc in parliament.
Obama indicated he hoped she would. “Chancellor Merkel has been an outstanding partner,” he said.
Many in Germany expect Merkel to run, adding to what would be 12 years in power. The chancellor said on Thursday it was not the time to announce such a decision.
Giving a ringing endorsement for Merkel before she announces if she will run for a fourth term in next year’s elections, Obama acknowledged that she would have heavy international burdens to shoulder.
“I wish I could be there to lighten her load somewhat. But she’s tough,” said Obama, in his sixth official visit to Germany.
Leaders head to Berlin
The leaders of Britain, France, Italy and Spain head to Berlin today (18 November) to seek assurances from Obama on the course that Trump might take, given the populist mogul’s pledges to shake up the world order.
Trump’s election upset has rattled European nerves, as he appeared to call into question a near 70-year-old security shield for US allies under NATO, and vowed to withdraw from hard-fought deals on the climate and Iran’s nuclear programme.
His friendly disposition towards Russian President Vladimir Putin also raised questions on his attitude toward Moscow’s backing for President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian war as well as Russia’s role in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Ahead of the talks, Obama sounded a note of cautious optimism that Trump could change his position once he takes on the role as president.
“There’s something about the solemn responsibilities of that office … that forces you to focus, that demands seriousness,” Obama said at a press conference following a meeting with Merkel.
“And if you’re not serious about the job, then you probably won’t be there very long. Because it will expose problems.”
But Obama also stressed the importance of a united Europe, and urged the bloc not to take for granted the transatlantic relationship that has been built up over decades.
“The EU remains one of the world’s great political and economic achievements, and those achievements should not be taken for granted,” he said.
Friday’s meeting between Obama and the leaders of Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain is the first of its format since Trump’s election.
“The meeting will allow for an exchange of views openly and informally on key international issues,” said the Elysée in a statement, pointing to hot-button topics like the US-led coalition’s battle against the Islamic State organisation in Syria and Iraq as well as Europe’s migrant crisis.
Citing the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, Obama stressed that he hoped Trump, who has voiced admiration for President Vladimir Putin, “is willing to stand up to Russia where they are deviating from our values and international norms”.
He said Russia was a military superpower with “influence around the world” but cautioned Trump against the temptation to “cut some deals with Russia” that hurt smaller countries because it may seem “convenient at the time”.
But the talks in Berlin also come as the EU faces unprecedented challenges that threatened to rip it apart.
British Prime Minister Theresa May, whose country shocked the world when it voted to quit the EU, is now facing a parliamentary battle on how to trigger Brexit – potentially delaying a March 2017 date for triggering Article 50.
France’s President François Hollande is grappling with record low ratings ahead of next May’s election that could see far-right Marine Le Pen reaching the second round run-off vote, or even winning outright.
And Italy’s Matteo Renzi and Spain’s Mario Rajoy are battling state debt woes.
But Obama urged the parties to focus on the whole, noting that “the achievements that we have seen on this continent in contrast to a divided Europe of the previous century, are ones that remind us of how important it is that we work together.”
Ahead of potentially fractious negotiations within the European Union over Brexit, Obama called on Brussels and London to work towards a future relationship that “preserve as closely as possible the economic and political and security relationships between the UK and EU”.