BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Some personal chemistry with a fellow veteran dealmaker and a quick sense that Donald Trump was ready to bargain helped Jean-Claude Juncker strike a surprise accord to avert a transatlantic trade war, for now.
That is the view of European Commission officials familiar with the EU chief executive’s meeting at the White House on Wednesday, after which the U.S. president declared there was “love” between the two sides and withdrew a threat to slap new tariffs on EU cars that would have drawn retaliation in Europe.
“Clearly there is a good chemistry between President Juncker and President Trump. It helps,” one EU official who was present said. “The human dimension is of crucial importance.”
Juncker criticized Trump, notably at a G7 summit last month, but he went into the White House showdown oozing charm. Trump tweeted a photograph of Juncker giving him a trademark kiss. He also gave him a picture of the grave in his native Luxembourg of one of Trump’s heroes, barnstorming World War Two general George Patton, with a note reminding “Dear Donald” of a shared history.
“Juncker has been tough on Trump in the past and Trump respects that,” said another EU official on returning to Brussels on Thursday. “You could tell from the atmosphere from the start that Trump was interested in doing a deal.”
That deal was twofold: to face down Trump by waving a threat of Europe’s own, to curb access to the world’s biggest market; and to present mostly old and effectively cost-free EU offers as something Trump could sell to voters ahead of November elections — new talks on lowering EU tariffs for U.S. industrial goods, outlets for U.S. gas and soybeans and potential EU backing in trade rows with China.
The EU delegation, which had been playing down expectations, confessed to some surprise at how well it worked, surmising that Trump, assailed at home on a range of issues, saw advantage in how an EU deal could be sold compared to a bigger trade war.
Juncker himself told the Politico news website “we get along well, surprisingly” and adding that Trump took past criticism well: “He doesn’t like those who beat about the bush.”
The two have very different backgrounds. Juncker, 63, has worked in politics all his life, most of it at the top table of EU backroom bargaining as finance minister and prime minister of Luxembourg; Trump, the real estate baron and reality TV star, held no office before his extraordinary election in 2016.
Yet both like to be seen as dealmakers in their different ways and Juncker will relish the praise heaped on him, notably by relieved German exporters, for what his team concede may only be a truce while Trump engages in talks before any action.
“Juncker knows how to tame Trump” wrote Vienna’s left-leaning Der Standard, describing the deal as a “masterpiece”.
“The old fox showed that, even from the most difficult of political situations, he can find a diplomatic way out.”
It is a far cry from two weeks ago, when some Germans were questioning his fitness for the job after he was seen staggering — due to sciatica, he insisted, not alcohol — during a NATO summit where Trump was busy trashing his European allies.
“A lot of love went into their preparations,” a Brussels diplomat from one EU member states said of how the Commission, in one of the biggest tasks the EU executive has undertaken on behalf of its member governments, worked out its Trump plan.
In saying the EU would import more U.S. gas, Juncker was able to surprise the president, two EU officials said, by telling him it was U.S. bureaucracy over export licenses that was partly holding back sales. In any case, it is part of a long-term EU plan to diversify away from Russia gas and cannot happen quickly as special terminals still have to be built.
In saying soybean imports would also rise, Juncker was effectively just reflecting market conditions, as Chinese curbs have driven down the price of U.S. soy, making it attractive to European farmers who use it in animal feed.
As well as carrots, though, Juncker also had a big stick:
“I think they weighed what it would mean to open up a 50 billion euro trade nightmare,” a third EU official said in trying to explain how Juncker succeeded where others, notably in Asia, had failed. “They wouldn’t know how this would end.”
Additional reporting by Peter Maushagen and Philip Blenkinsop; editing by David Evans