The U.S. commerce secretary was cut off in mid-speech during a video feed to an event hosted by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, underscoring how German patience with attacks on the country’s trade surplus is fraying.
Attendees at the Christian Democratic Union’s business conference in Berlin laughed and clapped when organizers faded out Wilbur Ross after about 20 minutes for overstepping his time limit. Merkel, who had been craning her neck on the podium to watch Ross speak on a screen behind her, then took the floor to close out the evening.
“That was the U.S. secretary of commerce, who had promised us a 10-minute statement,” Werner M. Bahlsen, head of the CDU Economic Council, told the audience Tuesday evening. “As you saw, he spoke a bit slowly, so it took a bit longer. Now we look forward to the chancellor’s speech.”
Ross’ comments included renewed criticism of Germany’s trade surplus with the U.S., which President Donald Trump has used repeatedly to pillory Europe’s biggest economy. The episode hints at growing tension over trade and challenges such as climate change ahead a Group of 20 summit next week in Hamburg, where Merkel will host Trump and his global peers. German officials said earlier that Ross had canceled a trip to Berlin to address the meeting in person.
While blaming World Trade Organization rules for favoring exporters over importers, Ross agreed with Merkel that the U.S. and the European Union should resume talks on a free-trade pact. The Trump administration made a “conscious decision not to walk away from” the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, Ross said.
“As your biggest customer, we hope to obtain a larger share of your market,” he said. “We, as major trading partners of each other, should have a free-trade agreement.”
After organizers cut Ross off during a call to counteract dumping in international trade, Merkel rejected his criticism of Germany’s surplus. She argued that direct investment to the U.S. by German companies should also be considered.
Germany’s Economy Ministry later weighed in to the debate, saying Ross’s criticism “contained nothing new” and dismissing a report he is compiling on the potential risks to the U.S. of steel imports — a document that Germany fears could have grave consequences for its own steel industry.
“We have absolutely no ground to believe that German steel exports to the U.S. pose a threat to the country’s security,” ministry spokeswoman Tanja Alemany told reporters in Berlin on Wednesday. “Trade is not something where the one side wins and the other side loses.”
The chancellor in her speech welcomed Ross’ support for restarting talks on TTIP, a goal she and former President Barack Obama championed. It’s a rare point of agreement on trade policy between Trump and Merkel, who will be key players when G-20 leaders seek to agree on shared goals.
“We will have controversial discussions at the G-20 summit,” said Merkel, who’s seeking a fourth term as chancellor in Germany’s election on Sept. 24.