Report

Merkel to Press Trump on Russia Sanctions

Merkel and Macron are focused on European business when pushing back on Russia sanctions. Their concern for the Iran deal is different.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks to visiting girls during the annual Girls' Day at the Chancellery on April 25, 2018 in Berlin, Germany.  (Carsten Koall/Getty Images)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks to visiting girls during the annual Girls' Day at the Chancellery on April 25, 2018 in Berlin, Germany. (Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

French President Emmanuel Macron launched a verbal broadside against many of the Trump administration’s positions during his visit to Washington this week. German Chancellor Angela Merkel might find herself more in tune with the White House — at least when it comes to U.S. sanctions on Russia.

The latest round of U.S. sanctions is expected to be on the agenda when Merkel and U.S. President Donald Trump meet at the White House for the second time on Friday. That’s because the latest measures, implemented according to a 2017 sanctions bill Congress forced on Trump, specifically give the United States the ability to levy penalties on European businesses that work with Russian firms in key sectors such as energy and defense. Germany and Austria already howled about what they saw as U.S. overreach when the legislation passed overwhelmingly last year; now, Merkel is expected to continue pressing for some relief.

The Europeans were uncomfortable with [the sanctions bill] from the start, especially the extraterritorial aspect which could impact European companies dealing with Russia, on issues like energy and defense,” Benjamin Haddad, a fellow at the Hudson Institute, says in an email to Foreign Policy.

In Trump, Merkel may find on this one point something of a kindred spirit, another leader reluctant to put too much economic pressure (or even blame) on Russia for its destabilizing activities. The White House pumped the brakes on additional sanctions expected over Russian activities in Syria. And European dismay at the April 6 sanctions apparently factored into the Trump administration’s decision to extend the deadline to comply with sanctions leveled against Russian aluminum titan Rusal, sanctions that had poleaxed the global aluminum market.

That relief “gives the U.S. administration a peace offering to these European visitors who are going to talk about their commercial woes because of the sanctions,” says Elizabeth Rosenberg, a former Treasury Department official who now heads the Energy, Economics and Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

There isn’t a lot of political appetite for confrontation [with Russia], countries like Germany and France are tempted to go back to business as usual, especially as they sense Trump is ambiguous on this. Both are influenced by economic interests,” writes Haddad, who was part of Macron’s delegation during his visit.

It’s not just about defending European business. Even with the recent attempted killing of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal on British soil, European skepticism about adopting a tough line on Russia through economic sanctions is increasing, with Germany at the forefront. Alexander Dobrindt of the Bavarian Christian Social Union questioned whether Russian sanctions are working and pushed for dialogue, and a new poll of Social Democratic Party members showed 81 percent oppose a harder stance against Moscow.

I don’t think it’s just special interests but also complacency among the German and increasingly European public that makes it extremely difficult to sustain the political case for sanctions,” says Dalibor Rohac, a research fellow focusing on Europe at the American Enterprise Institute. That makes it unlikely Europe will accept economic pain to deter Russia, which the German public in particular does not see as a threat. (Germany, for example, has consistently been a big supporter of a controversial Russian energy project that has torn the rest of the continent apart.)

The business-minded European stance on Russia sanctions contrasts with the message they’re hoping to send this week on another hot-button issue: The looming possibility that Trump will walk away from the Iran nuclear deal on May 12. European firms have plenty of economic interests in Iran — especially in the energy sector — that could be threatened if Trump tears up the pact and re-imposes sanctions.

But that’s not the reason Macron and, most likely, Merkel are bending Trump’s ear to keep the deal in place.

Rather, leaders of the European countries who signed on to the 2015 pact see it as the best way to ensure stability in the Middle East. Macron spoke about the deal at length in his joint news conference with Trump on Tuesday and in his address to Congress on Wednesday, and he announced he would work with Trump to craft a new, comprehensive deal.

Europeans by and large believe the accord is working, that there is no credible alternative to the nuclear deal, and that an end to that agreement means the beginning of a military solution.

“The way that they’ll focus on the [Iran deal] is from the perspective of nuclear arms control and stability in the region,” Rosenberg says. That is, not on how European businesses will be affected by sanctions.

Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering ambassadorial and diplomatic affairs in Washington. @emilyctamkin

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