HANOVER, Germany (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday said the United States needed a strong, united Europe to maintain international order, and he urged European allies to increase defence spending to address Islamic State and other security threats.
Wrapping up a trip to Germany that has focused on boosting trade ties, Obama pleaded with Europeans to look past the multiple crises facing their nations and maintain the unity that had brought peace to their continent.
His comments came after an earlier trip to London, where the American president urged Britain to stay in the 28-nation European Union, boosting efforts by Prime Minister David Cameron to avoid a so-called “Brexit” that opponents warn could trigger damaging political and economic consequences.
“I’ve come here today to the heart of Europe to say that the United States and the entire world needs a strong and prosperous and democratic and united Europe,” Obama said during a visit to a trade fair in the northern Germany city of Hanover, drawing applause from his audience.
Obama said worries over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and slow economic growth, particularly in southern Europe, had led to questions about integration on the continent and sparked destructive politics that stoked fears about immigrants and people with different religions.
An influx of migrants fleeing the civil war in Syria has heightened tensions within the bloc and put pressure on German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the preeminent leader in Europe, whose initial open door policy hurt her domestic political standing.
Obama’s rare two-day trip to the trade fair was seen as a sign of support for a leader with whom he has forged close ties ahead of German elections next year.
It also allowed him to put his support for Merkel and Cameron in the wider context of Europe’s role in the world.
“This is a defining moment, and what happens on this continent has consequences for people around the globe,” Obama said on Monday.
“If a unified, peaceful, liberal, pluralistic, free-market Europe begins to doubt itself, begins to question the progress that’s been made over the last several decades, then we can’t expect the progress that is just now taking hold in many places around the world will continue.”
Obama has spoken out against similar trends in the United States. He makes no secret of his disdain for Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, who has proposed building a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico and temporarily banning Muslims from entering the United States.
Obama needs support from European allies to handle foreign policy challenges in Russia and the Middle East, and he used his platform in Hanover to announce deployment of an additional 250 U.S. forces to Syria.
But the president said Europe generally could do more to prepare for its own defence and to fight Islamic State. He repeated his call that NATO members step up their contributions and warned of a tendency to get complacent about defence needs.
“We need to stay nimble and make sure our forces are inter-operable and invest in new capabilities like cyber defence and missile defence,” Obama said.
“That’s why every NATO member should be contributing its full share, 2 percent of GDP, towards our common security - something that doesn’t always happen and, I’ll be honest, sometimes Europe has been complacent about its own defence.”
additional reporting by Michelle Martin and Jeff Mason; writing by Jeff Mason; editing by Noah Barkin and Peter Millership