Trump-era US, Europe rift wide open at Munich security talks

EU leaders voice dismay at Trump decisions deemed hostile NATO allies, as Merkel warns against erosion of multilateral cooperation to tackle global problems

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) and US Vice President Mike Pence shake hands at a photo call during the 55th Munich Security Conference on February 16, 2019. (Sven Hoppe / dpa / AFP)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) and US Vice President Mike Pence shake hands at a photo call during the 55th Munich Security Conference on February 16, 2019. (Sven Hoppe / dpa / AFP)

MUNICH, Germany (AFP) — The United States and European powers voiced sharply differing views on issues from Mideast security to trade Saturday, laying bare a deep trans-Atlantic rift in the era of US President Donald Trump.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European leaders at a three-day international security conference voiced dismay at a range of Trump decisions deemed hostile to America’s NATO allies.

In one awkward moment at the Munich Security Conference Friday, US Vice President Mike Pence said he was bringing greetings from Trump, only to be met with stony silence from a room full of national leaders, ministers and generals.

Merkel said a looming new shot expected in a trade war — Washington readying to declare European car imports a “national security threat” — was “frightening.”

Trump’s announcement he will soon pull American troops out of Syria in particular has left allies scratching their heads about how to prevent further chaos and instability there.

France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian attends a panel discussion during the 55th Munich Security Conference on February 15, 2019. (THOMAS KIENZLE / AFP)

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, whose country contributes about 1,200 troops in the region, asked why the US would create a power vacuum that could benefit its declared enemy Iran, calling it a “mystery.”

A French government source criticized the Trump administration’s approach as “we’re leaving, you’re staying” and added: “They’re trying to manage the consequences of a hasty decision and making us carry the responsibility.”

‘Old world, new world’

In his main speech Saturday, Pence delivered more stern advice for other nations in Europe and beyond.

He reiterated Washington’s contention that Iran was planning a new “Holocaust” and told European powers to scrap the 2015 nuclear agreement with Tehran that Trump ripped up last year.

He also criticized a recent initiative of France, Germany and Britain to allow European companies to continue business operations in the Islamic republic despite US sanctions.

US Vice President Mike Pence speaks during the 55th Munich Security Conference on February 16, 2019.(Christof STACHE / AFP)

EU diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini said Friday the bloc was determined to preserve the “full implementation” of the deal, stressing it was vital to European security.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas argued that without the pact, “the region will not be safer and would actually be one step closer to an open confrontation.”

Pence praised some NATO allies for having raised defense spending but reminded others that their contributions were still falling short of the target of two per cent of GDP.

And he reiterated strong US opposition to the Russia-Germany gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 being built that Trump has charged makes the largest EU economy a “captive” of Russia.

“The United States commends all our European partners who have taken a strong stance against Nord Stream 2, and we commend others to do the same,” Pence said.

He went on to also criticize pending weapons purchases by NATO allies “from our adversaries” — seen by Moscow media as a reference to a planned Russia-Turkey arms deal.

“We cannot ensure the defense of the West if our allies grow dependent on the East,” Pence said.

On crisis-wracked Venezuela, he called on the 28-member EU to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido “as the only legitimate president.”

“Once more the Old World can take a stance in support of freedom in the New World,” he said.

‘Proud of our cars’

But there was spirited pushback from Merkel, the veteran leader who has sometimes been dubbed the leader of the free world, and who has spoken out more strongly in her final term as chancellor due to end in 2021.

On Syria, where US-backed Kurdish-Arab forces were clearing the final scrap of territory held by Islamic State jihadists this week, she openly challenged the wisdom of the looming US troop withdrawal.

“Is it a good idea for the Americans to suddenly and quickly withdraw from Syria?” she asked. “Or will it once more strengthen the capacity of Iran and Russia to exert their influence?”

On the trade dispute, she insisted that in Germany “we are proud of our cars” and explained that the biggest plant of luxury brand BMW was not in Bavaria but in South Carolina, from where it exports vehicles to China.

“All I can say is it would be good if we could resume proper talks with one another,” she said.

On Nord Stream 2, Merkel said that Europe was already buying Russian gas through other pipelines and declared that “a Russian gas molecule is a Russian gas molecule, no matter whether it comes via Ukraine or through the Baltic Sea.”

She also argued that the West must maintain dialogue with Russia, despite the Ukraine conflict and other deep differences.

Most crucially, Merkel cautioned against the erosion of multilateral cooperation to tackle global problems, saying that “we must not simply smash it to pieces.”

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