DW: For some 18 months everybody was waiting for an ambassador to the European Union. What kind of reception have you gotten?
Gordon Sondland: From the senior leadership of the European Commission, the Council, all the way to the person who opens the gate at the mission in the morning, I think people are happy to have a confirmed ambassador in place. They ask a lot of questions. As you know, a charge [d’affaires] is an important job but a charge can only do so much in a role that really requires a confirmed person. So I’ve felt very welcome.
So you’ve made it clear… that you are very proud of your German heritage.Your parents’ life stories I think are pretty remarkable: Your dad was smuggled out of Germany and your mom and sister had to come from South America. So how does it feel to be representing an administration that doesn’t feel that way about the European Union and doesn’t feel that way about immigrants?
I don’t share the notion that this administration rejects Europe in any way. I think this administration bifurcates our shared values and the importance of the transatlantic relationship which encompasses many things beyond just trade. This administration has to have some uncomfortable conversations with close friends and allies in order to right the ship and I don’t think that is a destructive perspective to take.
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What do you bring to the table as someone who grew up with some European sensibilities and knowing the history of this continent?
Well, I love Europe and I love Europeans; when I look at my own personal travel, for most of my life, 80 percent of it has been to European countries. And that was long before I ever considered becoming an ambassador or was offered the opportunity because I love everything about Europe. I like the culture. I like the food. I like the charm. I like the people, I like the lifestyle. And frankly I think the president is a huge fan as well, based on the conversations I’ve had with him. What he’s not a huge fan of is trade deficits.
Sondland: Converse conversations in public and private
You’ve just been in Germany [which] feels very much like it’s put on the spot by Trump. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has said that he thinks that Europe should “prepare strategically.” That doesn’t sound like a warming trend. So what do you hear on your travels from from Germans about their thoughts on the future?
I hear and see these things in the media. And then I have closed-door meetings with ministers, with senior members of the business community and that never comes up. They’re very substance-focused: “Let’s talk about this policy, let’s talk about that policy. How do we get through this issue; how do we get through that issue.” I had a conversation, for example, with a trade association and with a senior minister about medical devices. I never heard a word about “Do you really hate us? Does the president dislike Germany? Do we need to get started and get ready for a trade war?” I don’t hear any of those conversations. I hear very specific questions about what is it you want, how do you want us to do it. Here’s what we can do. Here’s what we can’t do and it’s a very focused discussion. I don’t hear the sort of general whining except in the media.
So it’s all of us?
I’m not saying it’s all you. It is the same people who I’m talking to that then turn around and get in front of the camera and make these pronouncements but I don’t hear those behind closed doors.
You wrote an op-ed saying you know things need to be done differently and that shaking things up isn’t bad. So what is your plan? There are some hurt feelings. What can you do to reassure the Europeans?
I think there is angst and I think there are some fears and I think based on some of the rhetoric, despite how that rhetoric is generated — whether it’s media spin or it’s honest fear among the citizenry of Europe or a politician — fair enough. What I’m intending to do to help reinvigorate the relationship, fully supported by the administration. We have a number of initiatives, again unrelated to trade, that are being worked on as we speak by many senior people in the White House that I think the Europeans will consider as olive branches.
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I’m not prepared to announce any of them.
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You were in the room when Trump and [EU Commission President Jean-Claude] Juncker met and came out with this surprisingly optimistic, upbeat statement that said things are going to get better at least in several categories.The Europeans came back and told us that agriculture is not on the table. The Americans came out and said that it is. What’s the reality here?
Well the reality is we made it very clear to the Europeans — the president did and the senior trade officials made it clear — that everything was on the table and in fact everything was on the table on a bilateral basis. In other words we invited the Europeans to put on the table any of their concerns about the way we treat their exporters. So we wanted to have a no-holds barred, free-flowing conversation. Where that will ultimately wind up I’m obviously not going to negotiate the transatlantic relationship today with you. But I can tell you that our side expects that everything is up for discussion.
But it’s a seriously different set of negotiations whether agriculture is on the table or not.
Well at the end of the day remember what the president is focused on. The president is focused on the trade deficit. And the president is focused on free fair and equitable trade. I can tell you that if the Europeans were willing to do a deal that involved no tariffs, no barriers, no subsidies, all together as one package, I think the president would agree to that deal tomorrow.
Is that part of your job, to try to convince them?
My job is to advance the president’s agenda and the president’s agenda changes depending on real time information on the ground. So as the president’s agenda changes or modifies or morphs, my job is to advance it. That’s why he has me here.
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The Europeans still believe — at least they say they believe — they can keep the Iran deal together without the United States. And they’ve just established a new “special purpose vehicle” that would try to bypass US sanctions. Do you think this is going to work?
The Europeans are entitled to try whatever they’d like. I don’t believe it will work.
You don’t believe the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] can be kept together with any of these mechanisms or just by sheer will of the Europeans trying to do so?
I believe the JCPOA is deficient in 12 issues that the parties that signed it did not include in it. And until those 12 issues are dealt with I don’t believe that it’s in the United States interests to be held to it. Which is why the president withdrew from it.
From ‘nice’ to next steps
And finally you’ve said that you expect to have some “uncomfortable conversations.” What do you think are going to be the most uncomfortable of those and what are you prepared to go head on into, as you wrote, that you think needs to be done?
Well I don’t want to pre-project an uncomfortable conversation when an uncomfortable conversation may not be necessary. You know my mother taught me “always start nice” and I think the president and the administration in their outreach to Europe right after the election followed my mother’s advice; they started nice and there were multiple outreaches between senior trade officials in the White House and the European Union. And as I said previously the EU really wasn’t interested in engaging because they liked the status quo. And until the outreach became a little bit firmer and brought other pressures to bear they weren’t interested in outreach. All of a sudden meetings were scheduled.
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Do you think it’s nice now?
I think it’s frank.
That’s State Department talk for “not necessarily nice.”
No that’s State Department talk for “pragmatic.”
And that’s how you describe the relationship right now?
No. Again I want to be very clear. I’m separating the trade discussions which is a small percentage of the overall relationship because the overall relationship cannot just be measured in money, it can be measured in shared values, in culture, in history, in wars where we were allies. So when you take an issue on which we have differences and you put it aside and you look at all of the other shared values which we don’t necessarily have with every country and every community in the world, it’s a very, very important distinction to make.