MAY 30, 2020
BERLIN — German Chancellor Angela Merkel has rebuffed Donald Trump’s invitation to attend a G7 summit, which the president is keen to portray as a symbol of a return to normality from the upheaval of the coronavirus crisis.
“The federal chancellor thanks President Trump for his invitation to the G7 summit at the end of June in Washington. As of today, considering the overall pandemic situation, she cannot agree to her personal participation, to a journey to Washington,” German government spokesman Steffen Seibert told POLITICO Friday.
“She will of course continue to monitor the development of the pandemic.”
Merkel’s refusal to accept Trump’s invitation is the latest in a long line of examples of the difficult relationship between the two leaders. Trump has repeatedly criticized Germany, and Merkel specifically, over issues ranging from Berlin’s trade surplus to its defense spending and commitment to NATO. Merkel has pointedly and publicly taken issue with the Trump administration’s unilateral approach to a range of foreign policy issues, from climate change to the Iran nuclear deal.
In a call between Trump and Merkel this week, the two leaders had heated disagreements on topics including NATO, the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany, and relations with China, according to a senior U.S. official, who declined to be named. Seibert, the German spokesman, did not respond to a question about whether the conversation was heated.
The White House had not commented by the time of publication.
Merkel’s refusal to attend the summit in person risks scuppering Trump’s attempts to present the gathering as a landmark moment drawing a line under the lockdowns and travel bans imposed to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
Trump canceled the summit in March due to the crisis and said he would host a videconference instead. But in a tweet on May 20, he said he might reschedule the summit, proclaiming, “It would be a great sign to all — normalization!”
The White House said this week it plans to hold the summit in late June in Washington, rather than the original venue of Camp David, the presidential retreat, where Trump moved the event after facing an outcry over plans to hold it at one of his own golf resorts in Miami.
“The president thinks no greater example of reopening in this transition to greatness would be the G7, and G7 happening here,” White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters Tuesday.
“We will protect world leaders who come here, just like we protect people in the White House,” McEnany added. “So we want to see it happen. We think it will happen. And, so far, foreign leaders are very much on board with the idea.”
But Merkel, who is a research scientist by professional training, has said that she believes June is still too soon to hold large gatherings given that the virus is still circulating, and experts are urging continued vigilance and social distancing, even as economies begin to open up again.
Officials aware of the transatlantic discussions said Trump was furious over Merkel’s reluctance to attend the summit and on Thursday he phoned French President Emmanuel Macron in a pique.
In a readout of Trump’s call with Macron on Thursday, the White House said: “President Trump and President Macron discussed progress on defeating the coronavirus and reopening global economies. The two leaders agreed on the importance of convening the G7 in person in the near future. President Trump and President Macron also discussed critical global and bilateral issues.”
Officials aware of recent transatlantic discussions said Merkel had voiced similar opposition to EU leaders gathering in person for a summit in Brussels on June 19, and said face-to-face talks should not resume until July.
The EU is under extreme pressure to reach a deal on its new seven-year budget, which is due to start on January 1 and now includes a huge rescue and recovery package to help address the economic shock of the pandemic. Most leaders believe an agreement can only be reached by getting everyone together in the same room.
But while officials said Merkel’s reluctance to attend the G7 summit was primarily based on the ongoing health situation, they also said European G7 leaders are concerned that Trump may simply want to use their visit for an election-year photo op, and as a basis for declaring the world is getting back to work — thanks to him.
Officials said that there had been very little of the traditional preparation that precedes the annual G7 summit, including detailed discussion about the agenda, and often intensive negotiation over the drafting of formal conclusions. Those negotiations were expected to be particularly tough given Trump’s divergence from the others on a number of issues, especially trade and climate change.
One official said the lack of preparation had heightened concerns among EU leaders about the potential political drawbacks of traveling to the U.S. — especially if they had not yet had a chance to meet in person in Brussels to discuss their own affairs.
Merkel, who will turn 66 in July, is the second-oldest G7 leader after Trump, who is about to turn 74, and they, along with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, who is 65, would be considered at high risk of complications from coronavirus.
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, aged 55, is the only G7 leader known to have contracted COVID-19 and had to be hospitalized in an intensive care unit.
In a readout of a call between Johnson and Trump on Friday, 10 Downing Street said: “On the upcoming G7 Summit, the Prime Minister and President discussed the importance of leaders meeting in the US in person if possible.”
Macron has said he would be willing to attend the summit. France is easing most of its lockdown restrictions on June 2, and travel between EU countries is expected to resume on June 15. But a ban on nonessential travel from outside the EU remains in effect, and a decision on when to lift it is expected by mid-June.
Abe has expressed similar openness, though Japanese media have noted that under current guidelines, the prime minister and his entourage would be required to quarantine for 14 days upon returning to Tokyo. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has also voiced a willingness to travel to Washington, as has Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. European Council President Charles Michel has said that he, too, would be up for the trip — if health conditions permit it.
Privately, however, one official familiar with the situation said that other EU leaders would support Merkel and would not attend Trump’s summit if Merkel thought it was a bad idea.