The chief executive of Siemens AG, the German industrial giant and one of the biggest foreign corporate investors in the U.S., took on Wednesday aim at the U.S. Trump administration – singling out its moves on immigration and offering some of the toughest criticism yet by an overseas corporation.
“What we are seeing worries us,” Chief Executive Joe Kaeser said. “America became great through immigrants…I hope that this great country will recall what has made it great.”
Kaeser is among the most prominent of a clutch of executives running Germany’s large industrial manufacturers, many of which have relied heavily on the U.S. as a market for exports and investments. Siemens is also a big U.S. employer, with 50,000 workers in the U.S.
Last year, Kaeser voiced optimism about the business impact of President Donald Trump’s election. But in comments at a news conference ahead of Siemens’ annual shareholder meeting here Wednesday, he changed tack. He took specific aim at Mr. Trump’s executive order Friday that suspends entry to the U.S. for refugees and restricts visitors from seven, majority-Muslim countries that Washington has singled as particular terrorism threats.
Kaeser also appeared eager to explain his criticism, which stood out as a stark departure from the reticence that big global businesses typically deploy in responding to politics and politicians in their overseas markets. That is especially the case among the button-down corporate culture that dominates Germany AG, which relies so much on exports. He said such prudence shouldn’t translate into avoiding all criticism of Trump.
“One must not mix up prudence with gestures of servility,” he said. Alluding to Germany’s Nazi and Communist past, he said: “Perhaps we Germans are a bit sensitive when it comes to walls and race.”
Trump administration officials and their allies have argued that the travel restrictions are needed to keep the U.S. safe from potential terrorists, and say the measure has broad support.
The Trump travel order triggered broad political criticism in Germany and around the world. But business leaders here have also become worried about what Trump policies will mean for the bottom line, given America’s status as the top market for German exports.
The Trump administration has recently taken wider aim at German economic policy and business practices. The new administration has criticized what it says is Germany’s outsize sway in European economic policy and its big trade surplus with the U.S.
Peter Navarro, Mr. Trump’s top trade adviser, told the Financial Times earlier this week that Germany was exploiting the U.S. and other European Union countries with a “grossly undervalued euro.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel responded that Germany had always supported the independence of the European Central Bank, and “we seek to remain competitive with everyone else in global trade.”
Berlin and the Obama administration, too, had clashed in the past on Germany’s large trade and current-account surpluses. Washington has accused the German government of relying too much on exports, including exports to the U.S., to feed growth while not doing enough to stimulate domestic demand, which could attract more imports from overseas. The U.S. imported $105 billion in goods from Germany last year and exported only $45 billion to the country.
Trump has also taken recent aim at specific German companies. Last month, in an interview with Germany’s Bild Zeitung, he threatened German car makers with a 35% tariff on cars imported into the U.S. from their plants in Mexico.
“You go down Fifth Avenue, everybody has a Mercedes-Benz parked in front of his house,” Mr. Trump said in the interview before his inauguration. “How many Chevrolets do you see in Germany? Maybe none…you don’t see anything at all over there. It’s a one-way street.”
General Motors Co. doesn’t sell Chevrolet models in Europe and instead markets its popular Opel and Vauxhaul brands. German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel responded that if U.S. car makers want to sell more in Germany, “they just have to build better cars.”
Kaeser said Wednesday that Siemens is a major employer in the U.S. and that it exports more from the U.S. than it imports to the country.