Preparations take place in Washington for the inauguration. Picture / AP

Germany sought to calm European anxieties over Donald Trump's presidency after he dismissed Nato as "obsolete" and said he believed the EU would break up.

"I believe we Europeans have our fate in our own hands," Chancellor Angela Merkel said in Berlin.

"I'm personally going to wait until the American president takes office, and then we will naturally work with him on all levels and see what kind of agreements we can reach."

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Merkel spoke out after comments by Trump in a joint interview with the Times and Bild unnerved governments across the continent and caused panicked meetings in Brussels.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German Foreign Minister, spoke of "astonishment and anxiety" among European leaders at the President-elect's comments.

"I've spoken today not only with EU foreign ministers but Nato foreign ministers as well, and can report that the signals are that there's been no easing of tensions," he said.

Days before his inauguration, Trump praised Brexit as a "great thing" and said he believed other countries would follow Britain out of the EU.

Speaking at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels, France's Jean-Marc Ayrault said the best response to Trump's interview was a united Europe. But it was Trump's comment that Nato is "obsolete, because it was designed many, many years ago" that caused most concern among European leaders, reigniting fears that the US could split the alliance under his leadership.

"Since World War II, the presence of US troops has been a prerequisite for rebuilding the continent, safeguarding peace and ensuring security," Dalia Grybauskaite, the Lithuanian Foreign Minister, said.

"We expect continuity from the new US administration. Mr Trump must maintain this leadership role to ensure security, stability and peace."

Trump's comments were in stark contrast to those of General James Mattis, his newly appointed defence secretary, at his Senate confirmation hearing last week. "If we did not have Nato today, we would have to create it," Mattis said, and EU leaders were pinning their hopes on his view prevailing.

"We are working on the basis that Trump will listen to Mattis, Rex Tillerson [the incoming secretary of state] and foreign policy Republicans," a senior EU diplomat told Reuters.

Mattis accused Russian leader Vladimir Putin of seeking to "break the North Atlantic alliance", and Russia was quick to support Trump's latest comments.

"Nato is, indeed, a vestige of the past and we agree with that. We have long been speaking about our views on this organization," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

But the Kremlin was cooler in its response to Trump's suggestion of sanctions relief in exchange for an arms control deal. "Let's wait until he assumes office before we give assessment to any initiatives," Peskov said.

Merkel's office said she was working to set up a meeting with Trump. But the German Chancellor's relations with the new American president appear to have started poorly after he accused her of a "very catastrophic mistake" in opening Germany's doors to asylum seekers. Merkel said Trump was confusing taking in refugees fleeing war with being soft on terrorism.

Trump also threatened to impose a 35 per cent tax on German carmakers if they sought to import cars made elsewhere to the US.

Preparations take place in Washington for the inauguration. Photo / AP
Preparations take place in Washington for the inauguration. Photo / AP