Europe Seeks Path Past Trump's Tariffs as WTO Warns on Economy

(Bloomberg) -- The head of the WTO warned about the first signs of a trade war involving the U.S. and China that could derail the global economy, as Europe kept alive a threat to join Beijing in pushing back against President Donald Trump.

“We are seeing the first movements toward” a commercial war, World Trade Organization Director General Roberto Azevedo said in an interview posted on the BBC’s website on Wednesday. “It would mean a severe impact on the global economy.”

Trump has imposed metal tariffs on allies and adversaries alike and threatened levies on roughly $50 billion on Chinese goods, saying the moves are needed to protect national security. The U.S. granted waivers on the steel and aluminum tariffs to a handful of partners including the European Union, Canada and Mexico, setting a May 1 deadline for a permanent solution. Avoiding a trade conflict will require speedy negotiations on topics that can take years to hash out.

This has wrong-footed the EU, which is struggling to discern what Washington’s conditions are and even with whom in the Trump administration to negotiate, according to an official familiar with the bloc’s thinking.

Unrealistic Deadline

Meanwhile, EU governments are rallying behind principles outlined by the European Commission, the 28-nation bloc’s trade negotiator. The commission says:

  • Trump’s May 1 deadline on tariff negotiations isn’t realistic
  • the EU must rule out making unilateral concessions and, while Trump’s trade goals are vague, the car industry seems to be at the center of U.S. concerns
  • the steel and aluminum debate should focus on the problem of overcapacity in China
  • the bloc must continue preparations to impose retaliatory tariffs on American goods and complain to the WTO should a permanent exemption prove elusive

In a sign of the confusion in European policy circles, the commission told EU ambassadors in a meeting on Wednesday in Brussels that the bloc must be ready to “think out of the box fast” in the talks with the U.S., according to the official, who asked not to be identified because discussions are ongoing.

So far, EU trade chief Cecilia Malmstrom is talking only to U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, according to two officials. A big question mark is the degree to which the ultimate U.S. position will depend on Trump himself, creating the possibility of near-permanent uncertainty, the second official said.

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker last week dismissed the prospect of reaching an agreement with Washington by the deadline.

“It seems to me highly impossible to cover all the issues we have to discuss with our American partners from now to May 1,” Juncker said on March 23.

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