If Donald Trump starts trade war, the EU will fight back with orange juice and peanut butter

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said the EU did not want a trade war but would respond if Washington imposed tariffs

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 May, 2018, 7:17pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2018, 3:57am

US President Donald Trump’s administration is planning to impose tariffs on European steel and aluminium imports after failing to win concessions from the European Union, a move that could provoke retaliatory tariffs and inflame transatlantic trade tensions.

US and European officials held last-ditch talks in Paris on Thursday to try to reach a deal, though hopes were low and fears of a trade war were mounting.

“Global trade is not a gunfight at the OK Corral,” France’s finance minister quipped after meeting US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

“It’s not about who attacks whom, and then wait and see who is still standing at the end.”

The tariffs are likely to go into effect on the EU with an announcement before Friday’s deadline, according to two people familiar with the discussions.

The administration’s plans could change if the two sides are able to reach a last-minute agreement, said the people, who spoke only on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Ross told Le Figaro newspaper that the announcement would come Thursday, likely after markets close.

Trump announced in March that the United States would slap a 25 per cent tariff on imported steel and a 10 per cent tariff on imported aluminium, citing national security interests. But he granted an exemption to the EU and other US allies; that reprieve expires Friday.

“Realistically, I do not think we can hope” to avoid either US tariffs or quotas on steel and aluminium, said Cecilia Malmstrom, the European Union’s trade commissioner.

Even if the US were to agree to waive the tariffs on imported steel and aluminium, Malmstrom said, “I expect them nonetheless to want to impose some sort of cap on EU exports.”

Malmstrom was meeting US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer in Paris on Thursday among other international trade chiefs.

If the US moves forward with its tariffs, the EU has threatened to impose retaliatory tariffs on US orange juice, peanut butter and other goods in return.

Fears of a global trade war are already weighing on investor confidence and could hinder the global economic upturn. European officials argue that tit-for-tat tariffs will hurt growth on both sides of the Atlantic.

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire called the US tariffs “unjustified, unjustifiable and dangerous.”

Tariffs on steel and aluminium imports to the US can help local producers of the metals by making foreign products more expensive. But they can also increase costs more broadly for US manufacturers who cannot source all their needs locally and have to import the materials. That hurts the companies and can lead to more expensive consumer prices, economists say.

“Unilateral responses and threats over trade war will solve nothing of the serious imbalances in world trade. Nothing,” French President Emmanuel Macron said in an impassioned speech Wednesday.

In a clear reference to Trump, Macron added: “These solutions might bring symbolic satisfaction in the short term. … One can think about making voters happy by saying, ‘I have a victory, I’ll change the rules, you’ll see.’”

But Macron said those “who waged bilateral trade wars … saw an increase in prices and an increase in unemployment.”

Besides the US steel and aluminium tariffs, the Trump administration is also investigating possible limits on foreign cars in the name of national security.

Ross criticised the EU for its tough negotiating position. But German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier insisted the Europeans were ready to negotiate special trade arrangements, notably for liquefied natural gas and industrial goods, including cars.