Opinion

Europe needs to react to Trump’s trade agenda – four urgent questions

It seems increasingly likely that President Trump will govern according to the values of his campaign. On trade, this might lead to major disturbances in the global rules-based order. The EU needs to decide how it will react, and it needs to decide fast.

By: Date: January 26, 2017 Topic: Global Economics & Governance

A version of this piece was also published in Kathimerini.

Kathimerini

When it comes to President Donald Trump, European leaders still seem lost in denial. So far they have reacted to his statements with extreme caution, and there is little discernible strategy. But Trump in office is not much different from Trump on the campaign trail, and Europe needs to think fast.

The challenge that the new US President presents is multi-faceted, as could be seen in his recent interview with German tabloid Bild. When Trump calls NATO obsolete, he brings the entire post-WW2 defence order into question. It is unprecedented that a US president questions the EU because of his experience with environmental regulation when building a golf course. And we cannot ignore his praise for Brexit, which he described as a clever escape from a system designed by and for Germany. This will echo loudly in many parts of Europe, and should provoke deep thinking in both Berlin and Brussels.

However, there is one area where the EU needs a game plan immediately: trade. European trade policy is largely made at EU level. So leaders need to give the EU clear direction on how it should respond, if and when Trump begins to disrupt the global trade system.

In fact, he has already started. Trump has torn up the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And tweets alone were enough to bully car companies into moving factories from Mexico to the US. His threats of a 35% tariff worked. Trump has also turned on the EU. In the Bild interview, he complained that Germans do not buy enough Chevrolets, while Americans buy many BMWs. Europe can no longer pretend that this is not happening.

Policymakers and media often portray Donald Trump’s views on trade as random and unpredictable. But a coherent trade philosophy has been visible for some time. In fact, his values reach back to a 1990 interview in Playboy, where he argued that the US should impose tariffs on Mercedes Benz.

Trump’s words and actions are consistent with a vision. They follow a plan for trade policy set out by his closest trade advisor, Peter Navarro, and his future trade minister, Wilbur Ross. The core of their argument is that all deals which lead to a trade deficit for the US should be renegotiated. Trade deficits are seen as damaging, because they reduce the size of the domestic manufacturing sector which can supposedly provide better paying jobs.

Now, a protectionist US trade strategy will not benefit most US citizens in the long run. For a start, manufacturing jobs are not really better paid than other jobs. In fact, the difference in hourly salaries is less than 3 percent. Moreover, moving manufacturing jobs to the US will be counterproductive, as the higher labour costs will accelerate automation. And tariff wars can raise prices, damaging consumption and employment in other sectors.

But that may not stop this anti-trade agenda being implemented in the next couple of years. On the contrary, President Trump won the election on a clear anti-globalisation ticket and all the signals he is giving suggest that he is determined to follow through.

So how should the EU respond? Europeans urgently need to find answers to the following questions:

What is the best strategy to deal with President Trump as a person?

Trump is likely to be a difficult negotiator. Could face-saving deals offer a strategy for Europe? Symbolic victories have worked in the past with tricky partners, and symbols can be powerful even when cheap. For example, a manufacturer could claim to have transferred an entire factory to the US, when in fact it only closes and replaces an old one.

How should the EU react if the US violates WTO rules to attack non-EU countries?

In one likely scenario, unlawful tariffs on Mexico would hurt many European companies. But this would not constitute a full trade war against the EU. Going to the WTO for arbitration could be part of the answer, as a stronger reaction might escalate the situation. The real question is how strong the EU response to any US infringement of the global trade order should be. And Europe should decide this now, before the event.

If the legitimacy of the WTO itself comes under attack from the US president, how should the EU respond?

The EU has long relied on a strong multilateral trade system. Perhaps this can be sustained by a stronger partnership between the EU and China. A recent speech from President’s Xi’s certainly suggests that China would be ready to play a greater role in underwriting the international rules-based system.

Finally, can the EU take coherent decisions and project its power in trade matters across the globe?

The EU is the world’s largest trade bloc, but has recently struggled to negotiate and implement trade deals. If it comes to a trade war with the US, who can effectively negotiate on behalf of the EU and wield a credible threat of retaliation? Would the EU be ready to agree on changes in corporate taxes concerning exports?

The arrival of US President Trump has ushered in a new phase of globalisation. The reality is that the US and EU economies are tightly intertwined with major factories on both sides. European leaders urgently need to think about how to minimise economic damage. Otherwise the EU risks being caught unprepared for this challenging situation.


Republishing and referencing

Bruegel considers itself a public good and takes no institutional standpoint.

Due to copyright agreements we ask that you kindly email request to republish opinions that have appeared in print to communication@bruegel.org.

View comments
Read about event More on this topic

Past Event

Past Event

Is there life After TTIP? The future of transatlantic economic relations

The partnership between North America and Europe is becoming unsettled and uncertain. How can we deal with this new situation that threatens the prosperity and ultimately the position of North America and Europe in the global economy.

Speakers: Maria Demertzis, Daniel S. Hamilton, Luisa Santos and André Sapir Topic: Global Economics & Governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: February 19, 2018
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Is it a Transatlantic, Transpacific or Eurasian global economy?

A look at the data on bilateral trade, services, investment and protectionism between Asia, Europe and the US in recent years gives some indication of the future shape of the world economy.

By: Nicolas Moës Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: February 14, 2018
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

The International Economic Consequences of Mr. Trump

What has fundamentally changed with the Trump administration is not that it behaves more selfishly than its predecessors, but that it seems unconvinced that the global system serves US strategic interests. For the rest of the world, the key question is whether the global system is resilient enough to survive its creator’s withdrawal.

By: Jean Pisani-Ferry Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: January 31, 2018
Read article More on this topic

Blog Post

Brexit, phase two (and beyond): The future of the EU-UK relationship

Whether it looks more like ‘CETA-plus’ or ‘EEA-minus’, the trade deal that emerges from phase two of the Brexit negotiations should not be the limit of ambition for future partnership between the EU and the UK

By: Maria Demertzis and André Sapir Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: December 13, 2017
Read article More on this topic

Blog Post

Promoting intra-regional trade in the south of the Mediterranean

Regional integration is still a sure way for economies in development to achieve economic growth on the global market. The south of the Mediterranean has still a low level of intra-regional trade integration, dominated by some overlapping trade agreements and political instability. The EU has the opportunity to play a decisive role, promoting and coordinating the process.

By: Filippo Biondi and Maria Demertzis Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: December 6, 2017
Read article More by this author

Blog Post

The European Union with the Community of Latin America and the Caribbean: where do we stand?

Latin American and Caribbean countries have deep historical, political, cultural, and economic ties with Europe, and cooperation between the two regions has been intensifying recently. Here we report some of the main trends in trade, foreign direct investment, and agreements between the European Union and The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, the European Union’s official counterpart in the bi-regional strategic partnership that commenced in 1999.

By: Francesco Chiacchio Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance, Global Economics & Governance Date: December 5, 2017
Read about event More on this topic

Past Event

Past Event

Flexicurity and labour market reforms in Europe

This event will discuss the potential of the flexicurity model as employment strategy and the way it could be implemented in European countries to be successful.

Speakers: Grégory Claeys, Philip Collins, Werner Eichhorst, Antoine Foucher, Maria Jepsen and Marco Leonardi Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: December 4, 2017
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

Brexit: When the banks leave

More than a tenth of the City’s business is now bound to go, but how much worse could things get?

By: Nicolas Véron Topic: Finance & Financial Regulation Date: December 1, 2017
Read article Download PDF

Working Paper

Returns on foreign assets and liabilities: exorbitant privileges and stabilising adjustments

Large stock of foreign assets and liabilities could foster international risk diversification. US, British and Japanese investors earn high yields on FDI assets, which might also relate to tax, intellectual property and financial sophistication issues. Valuation changes on net foreign assets had a stabilising impact.

By: Zsolt Darvas and Pia Hüttl Topic: Finance & Financial Regulation, Global Economics & Governance Date: November 29, 2017
Read about event More on this topic

Past Event

Past Event

Vision Europe Summit 2017

The 2017 Vision Summit is titled "The Winners and Losers of Globalisation"

Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: November 14, 2017
Read article Download PDF More on this topic

External Publication

Central Asia—twenty-five years after the breakup of the USSR

Central Asia consists of five culturally and ethnically diverse countries that have followed different paths to political and economic transformation in the past 25 years. The main policy challenge for the five Central Asian economies is to move away from commodity-based growth strategies to market-oriented diversification and adoption of a broad spectrum of economic, institutional and political reforms

By: Marek Dabrowski and Uuriintuya Batsaikhan Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: November 14, 2017
Read about event More on this topic

Past Event

Past Event

A conversation on USA economic policy with Kevin Hassett

This is an invitation-only event for Bruegel's member and for a selected number of experts.

Speakers: Kevin Hassett Topic: Global Economics & Governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: November 9, 2017
Load more posts