Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron were seeking on Wednesday night to overcome deep differences over their response to US trade demands, as a senior EU official lashed out at the Trump administration’s “capricious assertiveness”.
President Donald Trump’s threat of tariffs on steel imports emerged as the most contentious topic at an informal dinner of EU leaders in Sofia on Wednesday night, with the German chancellor and French president holding starkly different approaches.
Germany, which is mindful of the threat to its car industry from US import curbs, is supporting a move by Brussels to step up preparations for targeted talks on trade liberalisation intended as a conciliatory gesture towards Washington. However, France, Spain and the Netherlands fear such an approach could reward Mr Trump’s aggressive tactics.
The threat of punitive steel and aluminium tariffs is one of several Trump administration moves that are stretching transatlantic relations to breaking point. EU leaders will on Wednesday also discuss the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear accord and the recent bloodshed in Gaza that followed the relocation of the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
“Looking at latest decisions of Donald Trump someone could even think: with friends like that who needs enemies,” said Donald Tusk, the European Council president, in caustic remarks over America’s “capricious assertiveness”.
“But frankly, EU should be grateful. Thanks to him we got rid of all illusions. We realise that if you need a helping hand, you will find one at the end of your arm.”
After having twice granted one-month delays to the tariffs, the Trump administration insists that a permanent exemption depends on the EU addressing what Washington sees as unfair barriers against US exports.
The EU differences over trade were clear at a meeting of senior officials on Monday that debated how far the European Commission should go in “scoping” the parameters of possible future trade talks with the US, according to two diplomats present.
Martin Selmayr, the commission secretary-general, set out plans for more intense “talks about talks”, prompting objections from French officials, who stress the EU must not be bullied to the negotiating table.
Mr Selmayr described an approach that would focus on four areas: tariffs for industrial goods; trade in liquefied natural gas; enhanced regulatory co-operation; and the removal of a US block on renewing judges at the World Trade Organization appellate body.
Since tariffs were announced by the US in March, the EU has insisted it will not negotiate its way out of measures that it sees as illegal. But at the same time it has made clear it will be ready to hold talks on reducing trade tensions once the US grants permanent relief.
“We shouldn’t be paying to stop something that is illegal,” said one eurozone diplomat with concerns about the approach. “We would not be talking about this if Trump had not threatened tariffs, it’s as simple as that. He’ll come for more.”
Despite the EU refusal to grant unilateral concessions or negotiate under threat, Cecilia Malmstrom, the EU’s trade commissioner, has been holding talks with Wilbur Ross, the US commerce secretary, since the end of March, to weigh up possible options for future trade talks. The two officials spoke on Tuesday, with contacts to continue in the coming days.
Mr Tusk urged leaders in the run-up to Wednesday’s meeting to “stick to our guns” in demanding a full carve-out in exchange for trade liberalisation.
“Unity is our greatest strength,” he said. As part of its preparations for a worst-case scenario, the commission on Wednesday formally approved the list of retaliatory measures it intends to take against US imports from motorcycles to peanut butter should the bloc be hit by the tariffs.