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Trudeau, Merkel differ on answering Trump call for more NATO defence spending

Last Updated Feb 17, 2017 at 5:06 am MDT

German Chancellor Angela Merkel watches the party members from the podium at the general party conference of the Christian Democratic Union, CDU,in Essen, Germany, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

BERLIN – The pro-trade show of solidarity that Justin Trudeau and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are likely to make in Berlin later today will mask differences in how to deal with Donald Trump’s call for NATO members to boost military spending.

The two leaders are to address reporters following an impromptu dinner Thursday night at the Chancellor’s invitation, and a meeting today. Trudeau’s office confirmed the dinner but provided no details about their talk, but he and Merkel are to discuss a variety of subjects, including NATO.

Trudeau was featured on the front of at least two German language newspapers on Friday morning, which bore the headlines “the anti-Trump is here” and “Sexiest politician alive.”

Trump has called the 28-country alliance obsolete and U.S. Defence Secretary James Mattis told his fellow defence ministers in Brussels this week that while the United States still holds NATO in high regard, it expects its allies to start spending more on defence or the Trump administration will “moderate its commitment.”

Germany has signalled it will heed the warning and make attempts to boost defence spending. But in Ottawa, there’s been little indication that any increase in NATO-specific defence spending is on the horizon.

A Canadian government official who briefed journalists on the condition of anonymity prior to Trudeau’s departure for Europe this week said Canada is “quite comfortable” with its current contribution to NATO.

Canada currently spends 0.99 per cent of gross domestic product on defence. That’s below the NATO target of two per cent of GDP, which only a handful of alliance countries have met.

Germany’s spending stands at 1.2 per cent of GDP, but the Merkel government has made commitments to spend more to edge that figure upward, German ambassador Werner Wnendt said in a recent interview.

Trump is far from the first U.S. president to lean on its NATO allies, he added.

“We have heard this from previous presidents of the United States … that they said there must be a fair burden sharing,” said Wnendt.

“That’s well accepted in the alliance, so we will deliver.”

During a June 2016 speech to Parliament in Ottawa, U.S. President Barack Obama softened his request of Canada by saying he wanted to see more Canada in NATO.

Prior to that, the Canadian ambassadors for former president George W. Bush were far more blunt in calling on Canada to pull its weight on defence.

On Tuesday in Brussels, Mattis made some specific demands. He called on NATO put a plan in place this year that lays out a timetable for governments to reach the two-per-cent target.

There’s also some daylight between Trudeau and Merkel on the best way to stimulate economic growth, which will be a key topic of their Thursday meeting. The two first met in November 2015 at the G20 summit in Turkey, Trudeau’s debut on the international stage.

Trudeau found himself aligned with the G20’s broader goal of promoting growth through investing in infrastructure, financed through modest deficits. Merkel, however, held to her long-standing commitment to government austerity.

Trudeau and Merkel are more aligned now than they were in Turkey but differences still remain in how they view investment versus austerity, said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity

That ongoing conversation between Merkel and Trudeau will set the stage for his return visit to the German city of Hamburg in July for the G20 leaders’ summit.

On the shifting global economic forces unleashed after Britain voted to leave the European Union and Trump’s surprise victory in November, the chancellor and the prime minister are firmly on the same page, officials from both countries say.

Trudeau and Merkel are expected to discuss how to promote liberalized trade in an increasingly hostile anti-trade world, one that includes Trump’s antipathy towards big trade deals.

“There’s a lot of talk about what’s going on in the world. Canada, in particular, and Germany look like states with systems that are fairly stable,” said Wnendt.

What’s not certain is whether Merkel will be around at the end of the year.

Merkel, Europe’s most formidable politician after more than a decade in power, is seeking a fourth term in Germany’s September election. She remains Germany’s most popular leader, having rebounded from the dip she endured over the influx of one million mainly Muslim refugees into her country.

She faces a Social Democrat opposition led by Martin Schulz, the former speaker of the European Parliament.

Trudeau met Schulz in Brussels in October when the Canada-EU free trade deal was formally signed but there is no planned meeting between the two on this trip.

Germany is witnessing the rise of a new right-wing populist party that remains well back of Schulz’s Social Democrats and Merkel’s leading Christian Democrats. But it is still adding its voice to the European anti-establishment movement.

“Obviously,” said Wnendt, “she is convinced that times are sufficiently difficult to make it necessary for her to continue.”

International Trade Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said Thursday night that Canada can count on Merkel’s support to sell the Canada-EU free trade deal in Europe despite her current domestic battles.

Trudeau started his day with a meeting with German parliamentarian and sombre visit to a rain-slicked German Holocaust Memorial. Later, he will visit the location where 12 people lost their lives in December when Tunisian asylum seeker rammed a truck into a crowd of holiday revellers.

He later travels to Hamburg for St. Matthew’s Banquet, a gala event with a 700-year history where his keynote address will warn top European business leaders to take concrete steps to address the rising populist angst or suffer the consequences.