British PM Theresa May phones Trump to tell him of ‘deep concern’ over US trade tariff plans
Theresa May has called Donald Trump to raise Britain’s “deep concern” over plans to impose tariffs of 25 per cent on imports of steel and 10 per cent on aluminium amid US threats of a trade war with China and escalating tensions with the EU.
The prime minister had been due to call the US president on Sunday to discuss the appalling situation in Syria, with the pair agreeing it was a humanitarian catastrophe driven by the Syrian regime and its backer, Russia, according to Downing Street.
But May also turned to the question of Trump’s comments on trade.
“The prime minister raised our deep concern at the president’s forthcoming announcement on steel and aluminium tariffs, noting that multilateral action was the only way to resolve the problem of global overcapacity in all parties’ interests,” said a Downing Street spokeswoman.
Trump’s protectionism has been communicated through Twitter, where he claimed his country was losing billions of dollars on trade, adding that “trade wars are good, and easy to win”.
He also threatened taxes on European cars after the EU responded to the decisions on steel and aluminium by saying it could target US imports such as Harley-Davidson motorbikes, Levi’s jeans and Kentucky bourbon whiskey.
May has strongly signalled a desire to negotiate a bilateral trade agreement with the US after Brexit, but critics said Trump’s “America first” rhetoric underlined the potential danger of being too reliant on a transatlantic relationship.
And senior government figures said plans to keep Britain closely tied to European standards after Brexit, outlined by the prime minister on Friday, had also cut the chances of a major trade deal with the US.
One cabinet minister said that sticking to EU regulations in a number of areas, particularly around industrial goods, would constrain the breadth of any future UK-US trade links.
Sam Lowe, a trade expert at the Centre for European Reform think-tank, agreed, arguing that convergence in those areas made “doing a deal with the US incredibly difficult as the majority of their aggressive objectives involve removing regulatory barriers to trade, especially when it comes to food standards”.
He added that it would make sense for the UK to keep its focus on European links. “I’d question the logic of running into a trade deal with a president who sees trade less as a means of achieving mutual prosperity and more an instrument of war.”
However, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Tory MP who chairs the influential European Research Group, argued that Britain could still do a deal with the US, accepting its standards for imports into Britain. He said that could work as long as any goods falling below European standards were not then re-exported to the EU.
May’s speech, in which she doubled down on red lines around the single market and customs union but promised close cooperation beyond that, has led to a fragile unity on the government’s backbenches.
However, there has been some angst at cabinet level about briefings that have emerged in recent weeks. Cabinet ministers pushing for a softer Brexit were said to be irritated after an away-day at Chequers to agree the contents of the speech was immediately characterised by sources as “divergence has won the day”.
“It was more like divergence as a last resort,” said another source with knowledge of the meeting.