From EU Driving Seat, Romania Will Push for U.S. Trade Talks

(Bloomberg) -- Romania will use its European Union presidency to push for negotiations with the U.S. on cutting industrial tariffs as the bloc seeks to keep the threat of American duties on EU cars at bay.

Romanian Trade Minister Stefan-Radu Oprea said a European Commission request to start talks on lowering trans-Atlantic commercial barriers would feature at a Feb. 21-22 meeting with his EU counterparts. The goal is to have EU governments give the green light during the first half of the year, he said.

“We will treat this as a matter of priority,” Oprea said in an interview on Thursday in Brussels. “We aim to finalize this work at the earliest possible date.”

Steering EU business for the first time as holder of the bloc’s six-month rotating presidency, Romania is keen to help bolster a trans-Atlantic trade truce struck last July.

Zero Tariffs

That’s when U.S. President Donald Trump and commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker agreed to “work together toward zero tariffs, zero non-tariff barriers, and zero subsidies on non-auto industrial goods.”

The deal put on hold possible U.S. tariffs on European cars and auto parts based on the same national-security grounds that Trump used to hit foreign steel and aluminum with controversial levies in the first half of 2018.

Last week the commission, the EU’s executive arm, unveiled a blueprint for an accord with the U.S. that would cut tariffs on a wide range of industrial goods including cars. It’s this draft negotiating mandate that EU governments must approve before formal negotiations between European Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom and her American counterpart, Robert Lighthizer, can begin.

Oprea said his role is to act as an “honest broker” among EU governments as they deliberate over the commission’s request.

“The most important thing for the moment is to identify the consensus,” he said.

Next month’s gathering of EU trade ministers in Bucharest will be an informal meeting at which, under the bloc’s rules, no actual decisions can be taken. As a result, Romania must choose among three possibilities for EU governments to give the go-ahead for negotiations with Washington after Feb. 21-22:

  • wait until a regular meeting of EU trade ministers scheduled for May 28
  • organize an extra, regular gathering of EU trade ministers before May 28
  • ask any other group of EU ministers who are due to meet in regular fashion between Feb. 21-22 and May 28 to give the approval

Oprea declined to speculate about either the timetable for or the substance of the forthcoming ministerial deliberations.

Instead, he drew attention to an issue on which EU governments have been in full agreement: the exclusion of agriculture from the scope of any market-opening accord with the U.S., where some officials have insisted farm goods should be covered.

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