Meeting with Merkel, Mexican president calls for defense of democracy 'at a crucial time for the world'

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto called for the defense of free trade, democracy and environmental protections during an appearance Friday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Though neither Peña Nieto nor Merkel mentioned President Trump by name during their joint news conference in Mexico City, his pugnacious relationship with both countries was the backdrop for much of what they had to say.

Peña Nieto said Merkel’s two-day state visit comes “at a crucial time for the world.”

“It is extremely important to defend the values we share,” he said.

Those values include free trade, a principle at the core of Mexico’s relationship with the United States, and one Trump has threatened in an attempt to erase a trade gap of roughly $60 billion in Mexico’s favor.

They also include combating climate change, Peña Nieto said. After Trump this month announced he will be withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement, Mexico and Germany both announced they would stay in the accord and press forward.

In her remarks, Merkel emphasized the importance of nations having relationships with a wide range of countries instead of relying on alliances with just a few.

In recent weeks, as Trump has attacked Germany for its trade surplus with the U.S. and for not spending enough on defense to meet its commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Merkel has said that Europe “can no longer rely” on its longtime ally, the United States. Europeans, she said at a recent campaign rally in Munich, must “take our fate into our own hands.”

Some political scientists viewed Merkel’s visit to Mexico as an attempt to forge a global leadership role amid what some see as a possible rearrangement of international alliances in the Trump era. Before the trip, Germany’s ambassador to Mexico called Merkel’s visit a “sign of solidarity” with the Latin American nation, which has been one of Trump’s favorite targets since he launched his campaign for president in 2015.

If that was her goal, Merkel did not obviously embrace it Friday night. She side-stepped questions from journalists that would have offered her the chance to criticize Trump, and she declined to address a question about whether she is taking on a new global leadership role.

Rather, Merkel focused on the importance of the upcoming Group of 20 summit and emphasized the importance of her country’s trade relationship with Mexico, which is valued at $18 billion. Merkel traveled to Mexico with a large delegation of German business leaders looking to broaden an existing trade agreement with the European Union by the end of the year.

Though Merkel repeatedly praised Mexico, she also took the opportunity to gently scold Peña Nieto on his nation’s human rights record. She spoke of the importance of protecting journalists, who are killed in Mexico at an alarmingly high rate, and about bringing to justice those behind Mexico’s high number of forced disappearances.

"It is important to punish and find the culprits; it is vitally important," Merkel said.

The two leaders have a series of events and more talks scheduled for Saturday.

kate.linthicum@latimes.com

Twitter: @katelinthicum

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