EU unites in vow to fight Trump’s protectionist trade agenda

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 March, 2017, 6:29am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 March, 2017, 6:29am

European Union leaders sent a clear signal that the 28-nation bloc will promote free trade, in a show of opposition to the protectionist stance floated by the new US administration.

Faced with President Donald Trump’s “America first” economic policy and a resurgent anti-globalisation tilt in their own backyards, EU chiefs gathering on Thursday in Brussels used their last full meeting before Dutch and French elections to express their commitment to open commerce, pointing specifically to deals with Asian nations.

“Europe remains the champion of open, rules-based trade. Not least due to signs of protectionism emerging elsewhere,” said European Council President Donald Tusk, who was re-elected to his position at the meeting. “Trade is central to our economic success and so we will swiftly advance ongoing negotiations, such as with Japan.”

Despite the show of European unity on trade, fissures appeared at the gathering when Poland refused to support the summit’s conclusions, protesting the selection of Tusk, a former Polish prime minister. The leaders also discussed migration and heard a warning from European Central Bank President Mario Draghi to enact growth-friendly reforms since monetary stimulus won’t always be around.

Poland kicked up a fuss over Tusk, the former leader of the current opposition Civic Platform party, saying he’s part of a Brussels establishment that has unfairly accused the government of eroding democratic standards. The current Polish government was the only one to vote against his bid for another 2 1/2 years as the coordinator of EU policy on behalf of the bloc’s members.

The leaders’ forceful position on trade comes after negotiations between the US and the bloc have stalled over the proposed Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. During Trump’s first address to Congress last week, he reiterated complaints that other countries charge “very high tariffs and taxes” and put US products at a disadvantage.

“In the face of protectionist threats it was very important that Europe reaffirms that we want trade defence and that we can have discussions with external countries, Japan, South America,” French President Francois Hollande told reporters. “Europe must appear as an open continent. Europe should be an example of multilateralism.”

As leaders descended on the Belgian capital earlier in the day -- almost certainly for the last time before British Prime Minister Theresa May triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to start negotiations on exiting the bloc -- EU diplomats completed a draft of the summit’s conclusions, cautioning against isolationist trade practises.

The early draft warned against protectionist tendencies and said that the “EU remains strongly committed to a robust trade policy and an open and rules-based multilateral trading system, with a central role for the World Trade Organisation.”

By highlighting the role of the WTO, leaders are emphasising the need for fair as well as free trade, diplomats said. The wording is also intended to send a signal to populist groups like Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France that are running for election on an anti-free trade ticket. The draft could be revised by leaders during the summit.

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“We renewed our support for free trade,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters, highlighting the advanced state of negotiations with Japan. Merkel also indicated that she would seek to accelerate talks with the Mercosur states, would push to renew the trade accord with Mexico and wanted to open a new chapter with China.

“Maybe now Europe is the beacon of free trade in the world at a time when there are more protectionist attitudes and policies elsewhere,” Joseph Muscat, the prime minister of Malta, which currently holds the EU rotating presidency, said in an interview before the meeting. There’s a “huge market” in the world for free-trade deals, such as the one recently agreed between the 28-nation bloc and Canada, he said.