Idea of a Trump White House leaves Germany angry and anxious

German business representatives say there is widespread concern among enterprises that Trump's anti-trade policies could pose a threat

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 August, 2016, 11:21pm
UPDATED : Friday, 19 August, 2016, 11:38am

Eight years ago, a US presidential candidate named Barack Obama captivated hundreds of thousands of cheering supporters at Berlin's iconic Brandenburg Gate with a promise to tear down walls between races and nations.

Over the last year, however, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has provoked ire from German quarters after repeatedly disparaging the country.

On Monday, Trump sought to insult Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton by comparing her to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, saying incorrectly that crime had skyrocketed under Germany's refugee policies. Those comments, and others, have left Germans — from the highest pinnacles of business to the grungiest parks — transfixed on the US presidential election.

Unlike in 2008, many report confusion and fear in the face of a candidate who vows to build a wall and shut out allies if he wins the White House in November.

Thilo Brodtmann, executive director of VDMA, Germany's engineering federation representing more than 3,000 companies including giants Siemens and Bosch, said he sees widespread concern among German enterprises that Trump's anti-trade policies could pose a threat to their businesses.

"We have been worried because the US traditionally was very open-minded toward free trade and was a good partner in developing any trade agreements," Brodtmann said.

Trump has regularly emphasised that he supports "fair" trade policies as opposed to those that he says allow for trading partners to take advantage of the United States. The problem, Trump says, is that many of the current US agreements — including the North American Free Trade Agreement — should be renegotiated to make them more favorable to American interests.

The United States is VDMA's largest trading partner, accounting for more than US$18 billion in machinery exports last year. Trump's positions, Brodtmann said, could be especially difficult for small and medium-sized exporters who would struggle to adapt to new trade standards.

Even Germans who oppose the same global trade deals as Trump are fearful of the GOP nominee. Many German cities are plastered with posters and stickers contesting a proposed trade deal between the European Union and the US, but that campaign's most ardent supporters are not backing the candidate.

"Some of [Trump's] claims and fears look very similar to ours, but they come from a different place entirely," said Maritta Strasser, a lead trade campaigner for the nongovernmental organisation Campact — which helped form an alliance to collect more than 3 million signatures against the EU-US deal.

"I'm really terrified: I'd think he'd be of great harm to the world," she said, explaining that Trump's "us against them" mentality differs from her organisation's progressively oriented approach toward policy.

Still, some experts said the outlook for the US role in global free trade looks dimmer regardless of a Trump or Clinton victory.

"Neither one have this great free trade aura around them," Societe Generale economist Stephen Gallagher says. "They're both speaking to a strongly populist movement in the US and it's hard to figure out what their real intentions would be."

That's especially true for Trump, Gallagher said, as Clinton's positions are better known on other global agreements concerning defense and diplomacy, thanks to her long-standing presence on the international stage.

"There's a tremendous uncertainty on Trump given some of the comments he's made," Gallagher said.

This uncertainty is already playing out in opinion polls in Germany. In a study published July 19 by research firm Allensbach Institute, 76 per cent of representatives from German businesses said German-American relations would be jeopardised if Trump were elected president.

VDMA's Brodtmann said some German companies are also worried a Trump presidency could result in heightened geopolitical risks if the US takes a more hands-off role in world affairs.

"The US has always been active in lowering risks," he said. "Now, Trump said he doesn't want to pay for everybody — by doing this job worldwide — so we also feel that this might endanger trade."

A study conducted in April by the Pew Research Center found only 1 per cent of respondents from Germany had "a lot of confidence" in Trump doing the right thing regarding world affairs, while 74 per cent had "no confidence."

Yet Trump has not hesitated to put Europe's largest economy in his crosshairs. Aiming to insult Democratic opponent Clinton, he reached for a German simile.

"Hillary Clinton wants to be America's Angela Merkel, and you know what a disaster this massive immigration has been to Germany and the people of Germany. Crime has risen to levels that no one thought they would ever, ever see. It is a catastrophe," Trump said Monday during a foreign policy address.

German crime figures have remained roughly flat year over year despite the sizable population increase from asylum-seekers, and a German minister on Tuesday said Trump's assertion was "without any factual basis."

On the streets of Berlin, Trump's hostile comments are perplexing to a community that was enamored with Obama eight years ago.

Trump's remarks were met with disgruntled anger and a series of creative expletives from Christina, a 27-year-old speech therapist from Berlin who declined to give her surname. "It's very embarrassing for Americans," she said.

Christina and several other Germanssuggested that they would not want to ever visit the United States again if the country were to elect Trump.

Despite the low confidence in the Republican candidate, Germany's attitude toward Clinton isn't much better: In the Pew study, only 32 per cent said they had a lot of confidence in the Democratic candidate.