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What to expect from Trump-Merkel meeting on Russia, NATO

March 16, 2017 at 6:30 PM EDT
German Chancellor Angela Merkel will meet President Trump for the first at the White House on Friday. What’s at the top of the agenda? NATO’s response to a resurgent Russia and the stability of the European Union after Brexit. Judy Woodruff speaks with Peter Wittig, Germany’s ambassador to the United States, about what to expect from Friday’s meeting.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: German Chancellor Angela Merkel has her first meeting with President Trump tomorrow at the White House. Mrs. Merkel is seeking reelection later this year.

Tops on the agenda for the two leaders: the NATO response to a resurgent Russia and the stability of the European Union after Brexit.

I sat down with Germany’s ambassador to the U.S., Peter Wittig, and I asked him about the importance of this high-stakes meeting.

PETER WITTIG, German Ambassador to the United States: Well, it is an important visit for her. And it’s her first personal encounter with a new president. They have spoken on the phone a couple of times.

But personal relationships are important. And for us, Judy, the U.S. has been almost the most important international and foreign policy partner over decades. The U.S. has helped us to build a thriving democracy after the Second World War. It has helped us to unify Germany.

So, that’s a very strong tradition, a strong basis on which the chancellor will build on and establish constructive and forward-looking relations with this new president in the U.S.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well — excuse me.

We know NATO is a subject that has come up repeatedly during Mr. Trump’s campaign for president. He’s been critical of NATO. He’s said that the U.S. pays far more into NATO than it should. He’s leaned on other NATO members to pay more.

How much more is the chancellor willing to say Germany will pay, and by when?

PETER WITTIG: NATO is the bedrock of our common security.

It was kind of reinvigorated after Russian invaded Ukraine and fueled the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. And it is on a new mission against a newly assertive Russia and facing challenges in the south of the NATO territory, in the Middle East, for instance.

But there is this discussion on fairer burden-sharing. We’re ready for this discussion. It’s an important discussion. Germany is committed to do more for the defense, to increase our defense spending incrementally.

Last year, for instance, we raised our defense budget by 9 percent. And we want to go forward on this path in an incremental way. Yes, Europe, and also Germany have to be more active in defense.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mentioned a more aggressive Russia.

We know President Trump has spoken about the suggestion that he would take a more conciliatory approach to Russia. If that’s what this president does, what will Chancellor Merkel’s response be?

PETER WITTIG: She has a lot of experience in dealing with Russia.

She has spoken so many times with President Putin over the last years. I think we are pursuing a double-track approach, strong dialogue, keeping the channels of communication open, but, at the same time, being very resolute about our defense, keeping in mind our security interests, especially in the eastern part of Europe and beyond.

So, I think we would welcome a new chapter of the American and Russian leader in their relationships, but on the basis of a very clear idea where our strategic interests and our security interests are.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You expect that to come up?

PETER WITTIG: I could assume that they will be talking about Russia and the Ukraine conflict, about many other things, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We spoke about NATO.

The president has also been critical of the European Union. He was one of the first to argue that Great Britain should leave the E.U., so-called Brexit.

What is Chancellor Merkel’s plan to change his mind on the E.U.?

PETER WITTIG: Europe is our home. It’s our neighborhood. We are strong supporters of a strong and resilient European Union.

We deplore Brexit. We respect the vote of the people. We want to have close relations with the U.K. even after they left the European Union. But we will do everything to keep the European Union as a strong and resilient economic and political union.

And let me add this. I think it is also in the strategic interests of the United States to have a strong and resilient Europe, European Union, in the face of the challenges from the east and from the south of our continent in Europe.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And one can presume those are arguments the chancellor is going to make to the president?

PETER WITTIG: I assume so.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, I have to ask you about some of the comments President Trump made about the chancellor herself last year with regard to her refugee policy.

He called it, among other things, “a sad shame and a disgrace.” He went so far to say last year — and I’m quoting — he said: “The German people are going to end up overthrowing this woman. I don’t know what the hell she is thinking,” he wrote.

Does she believe she has President Trump’s respect?

PETER WITTIG: You know, the situation two years ago, when the refugee crisis emerged, was totally extraordinary.

It was the biggest, largest movement of people since the Second World War. And it was an extraordinary humanitarian crisis at our borders. Now the situation is different. The numbers are dramatically down.

The refugees that came in are properly registered and vetted. So, we have gone back to an orderly and regular process. So, the situation has changed since that time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about the comments that the president made about her and her policy? Can she just — does she think he has his respect?

PETER WITTIG: The chancellor, I think, is interested to build a strong, constructive, forward-looking relationship with President Trump.

And she has said many times she will not go back to the campaign, but will want to engage with him in a constructive manner. And I think that’s what we want to see tomorrow.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we will be watching tomorrow’s visit.

Germany’s Ambassador to the United States Peter Wittig, thank you very much.

PETER WITTIG: Thank you, Judy.

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