Opinion

How Should the EU Position Itself in a Global Trade War?

It is high time for the EU to work on more than just wishful thinking in response to the US challenge to global trade. With the first cracks appearing in the multilateral system, it will be difficult for the EU to maintain a middle course between the US and China.

By: Date: April 5, 2018 Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance

This opinion piece was also published by Intereconomics, Caixin (Chinese and English) and Nikkei Veritas.

Caixin logo

caixin logo english

The last meeting of the European Union’s heads of state or government, the European Council of 22-23 March, was dominated by worries about the future of global trade. Since President Donald Trump’s announcement to impose tariffs on steel and aluminium imports and the granting of a temporary exemption to the EU, South Korea and number of other countries, the old trade order based on a strong multilateral system has already been undermined de facto if not de jure.

Nothing of President Trump’s recent announcements should come as a surprise. In fact, he was elected on an anti-globalisation, anti-China and anti-Germany electoral platform. He also repeatedly questioned the value of a multilateral system throughout his campaign. Contrary to perception, Trump’s views on trade follow a longstanding philosophy. In fact, his values reach back at least to a 1990 interview in Playboy, in which he argued that the US should impose tariffs on Mercedes Benz. Trump’s words and actions are consistent with a vision.

One of his first actions in office was his declaration that he intended to take the US out of the Paris agreement in preventing climate change. This unilateral action was met by a determined response from the EU and China and led to the isolation of the US in the G20 declaration in Hamburg last year.

But the success of German diplomacy in preserving the international climate agreement may be more difficult to replicate in the trade arena. Isolating the US trade actions and preserving the multilateral system in the face of US resistance may, in fact, turn out to be impossible, and the first cracks in the system are starting to become visible.

The EU’s response so far has been smart and measured. Yet it also shows that it will be difficult for the EU to maintain a middle course between the US, its primary market and second-largest supplier, and China, its primary supplier and second-largest market.

After the departure of Gary Cohn, the remainder of Trump’s team is now even more firmly made up of individuals who reject multilateralism. Trump’s closest trade advisor, Peter Navarro, and his Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, argue that all deals which lead to a trade deficit for the US should be renegotiated. Meanwhile, Robert Lighthizer, the current United States Trade Representative, has also made his contempt for the WTO known and is a skilful expert on exploiting legal grey zones of the WTO. By purposely justifying the steel and aluminium tariffs as necessary on national security grounds, the US makes it difficult to successfully challenge the tariffs at the WTO, which in principle allows imposition of tariffs for security reasons.

But the challenge presented by the US to the global trading system far exceeds steel and aluminium tariffs. The real question is whether the US can force the EU to join it and become an ally opposing China – if it has not already done so. On the day Trump announced that the EU would be temporarily exempted from the steel and aluminium tariffs, he also decided to impose tariffs on US$60bn worth of Chinese imports in response to alleged intellectual property theft and to the US’s steep and persistent trade deficit with China.

How should the EU respond? So far, the European Council has declared that it continues to support the multilateral trading system and that it wants the EU to secure more free trade agreements. This follows the successful completion of agreements with Japan and Canada – the timeline for the Japan deal having been accelerated in response to President Trump’s election. The European Council has also rightly declared the US tariffs an inappropriate answer to the real problem of steel overcapacity, on which the EU has already offered to collaborate with the US to find solutions. The European Council has also announced that it is ready to respond to the US measures with appropriate countermeasures that are in line with the WTO. Finally, it has declared that it values the strategic partnership, including on security matters, with the US.

The EU’s response so far has been smart and measured. Yet it also shows that it will be difficult for the EU to maintain a middle course between the US, its primary market and second-largest supplier, and China, its primary supplier and second-largest market. One dimension that must be considered is security. It will be difficult to seriously undermine the transatlantic relationship without significant concerns about Europe’s security guarantee.

A second crack in the architecture is that the EU has taken note of the temporary exemptions that the US has granted and would like them to be permanent. As such, that formal declaration has already put a wedge between those countries that have been granted exemptions and China, which has received even more tariffs. In particular, the EU has been treated differently from China at its own request, and that will not have gone unnoticed in Beijing. South Korea has also received exemptions, and Japan is considering how far it can go in resisting Trump. The united front that could be upheld on the climate agreement was not preserved on steel, and Trump skilfully managed to divide the world with these small-scale measures.

Overall, the EU is right to insist on its plan A, which is trying to preserve the global multilateral trading system and bringing both the US and China back to the table in Geneva.

Third, political pressure in the EU will likely increase as China and others affected by the US tariffs try to redirect their supplies to the EU, increasing competitive pressures on European firms. Will the EU be able to keep its borders open, or will lobby pressures become so great that the EU will also feel compelled to raise tariffs? This risk may not materialise anytime soon, thanks in part to the positive business cycle and the increasing demand for steel, but the pressure will certainly increase the longer the tariffs last.

Overall, the EU is right to insist on its plan A, which is trying to preserve the global multilateral trading system and bringing both the US and China back to the table in Geneva. Yet Trump’s strategy has already begun to crack the global trade architecture, and the EU currently has no plan B.

What the EU needs to do is put a greater focus on its domestic economic policy so as to reduce its dependence on global trade. This strategy will not be easy. But only if we gradually manage to increase domestic investment will our economies become less vulnerable to global trade shocks. And only if we strengthen our security capacities will we become less dependent on the US security umbrella. And only if we strengthen our innovation capacities in systemic digital areas such as cloud computing and 5G networks will we credibly be able to stand up to US and Chinese dominance in the area.

It is high time for the EU to work on more than wishful thinking on global trade. We should not underestimate the formidable challenge that President Trump poses for our prosperity and security.


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 article More on this topic

Opinion

Stability remains key to China

The most concerning aspect for the Chinese economy will still be to hold up domestic demand. The rapidly rising household debt will put further breaks of the households' ability to purchase durable goods

By: Alicia García-Herrero and Jianwei Xu Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: January 15, 2020
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

The WTO is dead: long live the WTO?

Should the EU fight to save the WTO when the US seeks to dismantle it? We argue that the only way for the EU to decide that is to first understand the US’s strategy (as distinct from its tactics) and then make up its mind in terms of how much of a threat it perceives China to be.

By: Maria Demertzis Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: December 20, 2019
Read article More on this topic

Blog Post

Lessons from the China-US trade truce

The tentatively agreed deal between China and the United States temporarily stops a dangerous dynamic, yet it falls far short of the negotiating objectives of both sides. US trade policy has become a dominion of the executive branch guided principally by the President’s electoral interests. Meanwhile, China demonstrates its capacity to resist pressure: it will enact structural reforms at its own pace in line with its interests. Sadly, the deal confirms that the United States no longer feels obligated to follow WTO rules, and can induce others to do the same.

By: Uri Dadush and Marta Domínguez-Jiménez Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: December 19, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Podcast

Podcast

Appellate Body Politic

This week, the WTO's Appellate Body, the dispute settlement body, became inoperational: it no longer has the necessary number of judges to render verdicts. What does this mean for international trade and multilateralism? Are we now living in a world without dispute settlement? This week, Guntram Wolff is joined by Alan Beattie, the author of the FT's new Trade Secrets newsletter, and Alicia García-Herrero to discuss the crisis of the Appellate Body.

By: The Sound of Economics Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: December 12, 2019
Read article More by this author

Opinion

Watch out for China’s currency in case of no-deal scenario

The U.S. and China’s negotiations on a phase-one deal seem to have stalled again. The market was already aware of the limited nature of the likely deal, but was still hoping for it. Against this backdrop, the investors have reacted negatively to the increased likelihood of not reaching a deal on December 15. If this is the case, the U.S. will apply additional tariffs on Chinese imports. The obvious question to address, thus, is, what can happen to China under such a scenario?

By: Alicia García-Herrero Topic: Finance & Financial Regulation Date: December 11, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Podcast

Podcast

Getting post-Brexit trade deals done

The UK goes to the polls on Thursday to decide who (and if) they want to "get Brexit done". But, as soon as Britain leaves, it will have 11 months to agree a trade deal with the EU. Is it possible? Nicholas Barrett is joined by Maria Demertzis and Niclas Poitiers to discuss post-Brexit trade deals with the EU and the USA.

By: The Sound of Economics Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: December 10, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

High noon at the Appellate Body

This blog post explains the working method of the dispute settlement body, and then discusses the objections the US has raised against the Appellate Body, and the implications of its potential demise.

By: Niclas Poitiers Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: December 9, 2019
Read article Download PDF More on this topic More by this author

Policy Contribution

The European Union-Russia-China energy triangle

Concern is growing in the European Union that a rapprochement between Russia and China could have negative implications for the EU.

By: Georg Zachmann Topic: Energy & Climate Date: December 9, 2019
Read article Download PDF More on this topic

External Publication

Manufacturing employment, international trade, and China

The decline in manufacturing employment is often seen as a major reason for rising inequality, social tensions, and the slump of entire communities. With the rise of national populists and protectionists in recent years, the issue has become even more prominent.

By: Uri Dadush and Abdelaziz Ait Ali Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: November 28, 2019
Read article Download PDF More on this topic

Working Paper

The state of China-European Union economic relations

More can be done to capture the untapped trade and investment opportunities that exist between China and the EU. China’s size and dynamism, and its recent shift from an export-led to a domestic demand-led growth model, mean that these opportunities are likely to grow with time.

By: Uri Dadush, Marta Domínguez-Jiménez and Tianlang Gao Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: November 20, 2019
Read article Download PDF More on this topic

Working Paper

How does China fare on the Russian market? Implications for the European Union

China’s economic ties with Russia are deepening. Meanwhile, Europe remains Russia’s largest trading partner, lender and investor. An analysis of China’s ties with Russia, indicate that China seems to have become more of a competitor to the European Union on Russia’s market. Competition over investment and lending is more limited, but the situation could change rapidly with China and Russia giving clear signs of a stronger than ever strategic partnership.

By: Alicia García-Herrero and Jianwei Xu Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: November 18, 2019
Read about event More on this topic

Past Event

Past Event

The role of China in global value chains

This event looked at how the rise of China is affecting global value chains.

Speakers: Alicia García-Herrero, Seamus Grimes, Margit Molnar and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: Global Economics & Governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: November 18, 2019
Load more posts