EU-US trade tensions at fever pitch as steel deadline looms

by J�rgen HECKER
Trade relations between the EU and Washington have become steely

Trade tensions between the European Union and the United States ran high Thursday as the clock was ticking for US steel and aluminium tariffs against European producers to kick in.

US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Wednesday rejected calls to extend exemptions on the punishing import tariffs and warned that duties for massive US imports of automobiles were on the horizon.

The prospect of the metals tariffs taking effect on Friday caused mounting frustration in Europe, the single-largest source of US steel imports.

"World trade is not a gunfight at the O.K. Corral," French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire quipped Thursday, in reference to a 1957 western movie.

Le Maire warned that the EU would take "all necessary measures" if the US imposed the tariffs.

- Not a western -

"It's not everyone attacking the other and we see who remains standing at the end," he said, declaring that the stiff taxes would be "unjustified, unjustifiable and dangerous".

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the EU would respond in a "firm and united" manner to the tariffs.

"We want to be exempt from these tariffs" which were "not compatible" with World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, Merkel told a press conference with Portuguese premier Antonio Costa in Lisbon.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas meanwhile warned against the threat of protectionism, telling reporters Thursday that international partners could have "no interest in the clock being turned back" on trade policy.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday that Washington would allow the EU exemption to expire, after weeks of talks failed to yield a compromise, such as a quota arrangement.

EU-US tensions are casting a shadow over a meeting of finance ministers from the world's top economies which opens in a Canadian mountain resort on Thursday.

- Trade hijacks G7 -

The harsh duties imposed in March to combat global overcapacity of the metals and boost domestic production, were only among a flurry of different developments, coinciding with a political crisis in Italy, which this week has roiled markets.

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is due to hold meetings with his European counterparts to discuss President Donald Trump's confrontational trade agenda, officials said.

But Jacob Kirkegaard, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, told AFP that the agenda Canada, the current G7 chair, set for the meeting -- which included uncontroversial themes such as inclusive development and innovation in finance -- would be swept aside amid raw relations between America and its traditional allies.

"Hopefully they can agree to keep talking about these issues, although that is unlikely," he said, adding that Trump's recent actions proved to US allies that Washington would not de-escalate the dispute.

"I think the only thing you can hope for is no further harm."

Last week, the US administration launched a national security-based investigation that could result in stinging tariffs on the autos the US imports annually, just as it has for the smaller aluminium and steel industries.

EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom and Japanese Economy Minister Hiroshige Seko on Thursday warned against such a measure, saying it would cause "serious turmoil in the global markets".

Such tariffs could also "lead to the demise of the multilateral trading system based on WTO rules", the ministers said.

The WTO meanwhile acknowledged that it needed to become "more effective" to retain its central role for global trade.

- Chopping and changing -

Relations among G7 nations represent particularly high stakes as they account for more than 60 percent of global GDP.

And the sectors where Trump has chosen to wage his battles are key to trade in the economic bloc.

More than 60 percent of US auto imports -- an industry that closely binds US and Canadian manufacturing -- come from G7 countries, as well as more than 50 percent of aluminium imports and nearly 36 percent of steel.

Stephanie Segal, deputy director of the Simon Chair in political economy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Washington's many about-faces meant consensus in the near-term was an increasingly dim prospect.

"It doesn't feel particularly constructive to me and I have to believe that the end game is not to create market instability, which is precisely what something like this does," she told AFP.

burs/jh/ser

Trade relations between the EU and Washington have become steely