BERLIN, May 22 (Reuters) - The German government will help German firms with business in Iran where it can, but cannot entirely shield them from the U.S. decision to quit the Iran nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions against Tehran, the economy minister told a newspaper.
European companies conducting business in Iran face U.S. sanctions after President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear accord between six major powers and Iran. EU officials say there is no easy way to protect EU firms and banks from the extraterritorial nature of the U.S. sanctions.
Asked how the German government could assist German firms feeling nervous in the wake of the U.S. decision, Altmaier told the Passauer Neue Presse newspaper that Berlin would help them assess the situation and developments while also urging the U.S. to grant exemptions and deadline extensions.
“We will help where we can, but there is no way of completely averting the consequences of this unilateral withdrawal,” he said.
Turning to the U.S. decision to impose import duties of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminium - from which European Union countries have been exempted until June 1 - Altmaier said Europe was in favour of free trade and wanted tariffs to be reduced, not raised:
“When tariffs are increased, it’s the citizens who foot the bill and, if goods become more expensive, jobs are jeopardised.”
He said there would be no winner in a tariff or trade war, adding: “If you fight fire with fire, all you’re left with is scorched earth. And it would be the consumers who suffer. That would be fatal and that’s why I’m fighting for free trade and our jobs with all of my might.”
Altmaier said a sharp cooling of the relationship between the European Union and Russia in recent years and a downturn in trading had hit millions of people in Europe.
“We’ll talk to the new Russian government about how, despite sanctions and punitive tariffs, an economic exchange can be developed that leads to new economic dynamism,” Altmaier said.
“Of course, that doesn’t get rid of the political differences. It would be wrong to lift the EU sanctions against Russia at the moment because the reasons that led to them haven’t changed yet,” he added.
Asked about French President Emmanuel Macron’s comment this month that Germany needed to wean itself off the “fetish of fiscal conservatism” to become a leading force for European renewal, Altmaier said Germany was prepared to invest in Europe, bring about reforms and strengthen Europe.
“That will be easier and work better with President Macron than with his predecessors,” he said.
He added that Germany had found that sticking to a balanced budget had resulted in more prosperity and financial wiggle room, and meant it could invest more.
“It is right to continue on this path of consolidation. In the coming years we can invest more than 146 billion euros. The German model makes it possible for other countries to create prosperity too without ruining public finances,” he said. (Reporting by Michelle Martin; Editing by Kevin Liffey)