A veteran Swedish politician could be the most important thing standing between Europe and more of President Trump’s tariffs.
Cecilia Malmstrom, the European commissioner for trade, is in Washington to meet with her U.S. counterpart, Robert E. Lighthizer. Their meeting comes at a fraught time: The European Union is debating when and how to start trade talks with the United States; the United States is insisting that the talks include agriculture, while the E.U. notes that that is not what Trump and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker agreed to last summer and says the talks should focus on industrial goods; and Trump has threatened Europe with tariffs on cars and car parts if the two sides do not reach a deal.
Malmstrom’s meeting will be followed by a Thursday discussion between Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council, and the European Commission’s secretary general, Martin Selmayr. Malmstrom’s unenviable task, then, is to bridge a seemingly unbridgeable gap between the U.S. and E.U. narratives.
Europe experts say she’s up to the challenge. “Cecilia Malmström is a rare European leader these days — extremely personable, deeply knowledgeable across a wide array of issues, and staunchly pro-European and liberal,” Erik Brattberg, director of the Europe Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in an email.
Still, Malmstrom isn’t the first high-profile woman tasked with somehow getting the Trump administration to see things her way. Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s foreign minister, was in charge of renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement; Trump hit out at her personally in September, saying, “We’re very unhappy with negotiations and the negotiating style of Canada. We don’t like their representative very much.”
After Margrethe Vestager, the European commissioner for competition, announced a record fine against Google, Trump complained to Juncker, “Your tax lady, she really hates the U.S.” (“I do work with tax and I am a woman,” Vestager told reporters in response, adding that she very much likes the United States).
Trump also has apparently clashed with Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany and arguably the most powerful woman in the world, reportedly directing a diatribe on what he characterized as European freeloaders at “you, Angela” during a NATO summit in July.
But some say that, in her work in and with Washington, the role that her gender will play in these negotiations, and in Trump’s perception of them, isn’t crossing Malmstrom’s mind. Asked whether Malmstrom, who hails from gender-equality champion Sweden, is likely to be thinking about sexism as she heads into her meetings, Karin Olofsdotter, the Swedish ambassador to the United States, said simply, “No, I don’t.”
“She comes from a nation which is — trade is in our DNA. Sweden is extremely international,” Olofsdotter said. “Her outlook comes from that perspective.”
Before becoming trade commissioner in 2014, Malmstrom was the European commissioner for home affairs; before that, the Swedish minister for European affairs. But it’s the past five years that prepare her for these talks.
“As trade commissioner, she has been relentless in promoting free trade deals for the EU. Though the TTIP [Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a proposed agreement between the United States and European Union from the Obama administration] negotiations were dead on arrival when Trump was elected, Malmström’s tough negotiation style was instrumental in advancing trade deals with countries like Vietnam, Canada and Japan and initiating new negotiations with Australia,” Brattberg wrote.
“She is a formidable negotiating partner for Washington. She has made clear that should the US administration impose tariffs against European cars, that the EU will not sit idly back but respond with counter-tariffs,” he added.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that she will keep Trump from waging another trade war. But the E.U., at least, believes she’s prepared for the battle.
“She comes as a very strong partner to the United States,” Olofsdotter said, “and we really hope the talks go well.”