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Richard Grenell tempts car bosses to a TTIP lite

GERMANY-US-DIPLOMACY
Have I got a surprise for you. Source: Getty

Yesterday, Germany’s chief car bosses met with Washington’s new man in Berlin, Richard Grenell. The conservative ambassador, criticized in the past for his lack of diplomatic tact, organized a secret meeting in Berlin. He came bearing an offer from President Donald Trump to ditch car tariffs and do a deal instead. Mr. Grenell tempted Dieter Zetsche, boss of Daimler, BMW’s Harald Krüger, Herbert Diess of VW and Elmar Degenhart of Continental, to drop tariffs on German and US cars. There’s two catches: President Trump also wants automotive companies to invest more in the US as part of the deal and WTO rules stand in the way: Trade agreements can’t just apply to a specific product or industry but must cover trade as a whole.

One option would be a dedicated “TTIP” trade pact, a lighter version of the trade agreement between the US and Europe that would cover cars and comply with WTO rules. But the French don’t like that, preferring Europe to stand united, rather than wrangle with Washington case by case. Bonne chance with that, Manu.

Nobody wants an eternal haggle. So far, 40 WTO members have approached the organization with fears about potential car tariffs. But the new administration in the US seems to disdain any rules that don’t suit and some fear it’s trying to destroy the WTO, the architecture that regulates global trade. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker will head to Washington later this month to discuss ways of averting a trade war. Let’s hope the US wants a solution too.

At Audi, silence is golden, especially for bosses and engineers who may know a little too much. The German luxury carmaker has quietly paid off several senior managers in the wake of the Dieselgate crisis, including Rupert Stadler, Ulrich Hackenberg and Wolfgang Hatz. As authorities investigate VW and its peers, pressing to find out who-knew-what about the systematic cheating on emissions tests, carmakers are on their back feet. Several managers whose posts in R&D, for example, meant they were well-placed to know what was going on, are still drawing pay though they left as the scandal unfolded. At least two were paid millions in settlements with their former employer, as the firm robs stock holders to buy the managers’ silence.

Meanwhile, Commerzbank, Germany’s second largest bank, faces the same troubles as many other banks around the world, as digital upstarts steal their lunch. CoBa, as it’s known here, could be booted out of Germany’s blue-chip DAX listing and replaced by cheeky newcomer Wirecard. The fintech pioneer provides cashless payments but is more loved abroad than at home, interestingly, because Germans remain mysteriously attached to cash. That switcheroo, if it happens in September, would be just another bit of sorry news for Commerzbank, which is also writing off a major ad campaign. Blame the soccer. Coba had counted on a slew of new customers through a campaign centered on the World Cup tournament. But South Korea’s victory over Germany switched off that plan. It’s one more firm falling victim to the lackluster performance of Die Mannschaft. Berlin’s public-viewing “fan mile” is now a ghost town as well and, while that’s a blessing for cyclists, it’s a nightmare for business.

Today, I’m watching the meeting between Ms. Merkel and Theresa May, the UK leader who is in Berlin to discuss the future relationship between the EU and the UK after Brexit. Both women are locked in similar uphill battles, on the one hand with troublesome “allies” at home, while on the other seeking to persuade European leaders to support their plans. While Merkel and Seehofer, the thorn in her side, have forged a fragile peace pact, Ms. May is still torn between rambunctious politicians pushing for a hard Brexit, and the more practical need for a functioning economy beyond 2019. She is now touring the bloc’s capitals (she hit Amsterdam yesterday, likely needing a bit of a chill) to garner support among European leaders for a compromise ahead of a summit back in Britain on Friday.

I’m also watching what Mr. Seehofer does at his meeting in Austria (Merkel will likely be keeping an eye on him too). He will try to persuade Austria’s baby-faced, right-wing leader to support his “transit camps” proposal to keep refugees out of Germany if they have already registered elsewhere. The two hardliners seemed to agree on everything during the refugee crisis but now, their interests diverge as Mr. Kurz isn’t interested in taking back refugees from Germany, meaning Mr. Seehofer will be straining his diplomatic muscles.

With that in mind, not least, I also have an eye on the local beaches as the summer hots up. But Germans – dedicated lovers of vacation – are miffed to discover that travel is becoming more costly. Air fares are up, up and away as airlines quietly jack up ticket prices, partly because of a plane shortage on some routes after Air Berlin went bust last year. Not to mention the ongoing battle between the ultra-low cost buses and the railway. With Germany’s lakes and biergartens, who needs faraway beaches and the interminable towel wars? Summer, here I come.

Distant travels can also be dangerous. A stork was being tracked by a group of Polish environmentalists. It flew south fitted with a GPS device but unfortunately, the beeps stopped in Sudan. Soon afterwards, the charity was landed with a phone bill of €2,000. Apparently someone seized a chance to contact friends and family via the tracker’S SIM card. The stork, Kajtek, isn’t expected to have survived.

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