Why Wilbur Ross is upping the ante on European trade

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US trade secretary Wilbur Ross: "The patience of the president is not unlimited." Photo credit: REUTERS

BRUSSELS – The US Trade Minister, Wilbur Ross, challenged a fragile transatlantic trade base by accusing the European Union of dragging on promises that open the market.

He went to the European Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom because he said that it is the task of the US to make proposals to reduce the tariffs for industrial goods. At a briefing in Brussels on Wednesday, Ross said the 28-nation bloc had to act on product standards, which he described as equally important.

"Discussing rates in the absence of discussion standards is a useless exercise," Ross said one day after holding a meeting with Malmstrom to take stock of EU-US. trade relations. "Both are protectionist."

At stake is how in July a deal can be concluded between the US President Donald Trump and Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission, who have American automotive duties based on the same national security grounds that the White House used to controversial charges on to steel and aluminum.

The two leaders agreed in Washington on July 25th to work on the abolition of tariffs and non-tariff barriers for industrial goods traded between the EU and the US, and set up a working group that had its political kick-off in September .

& # 39; Not unlimited & # 39;

"We really need tangible progress," said Ross Wednesday. "The patience of the president is not unlimited."

The warning highlights the ambiguity of the July pact and the continuing threat of US duties on European cars and car parts. Such a move would point to a significant escalation of transatlantic tensions due to US metal taxes and EU tit-for-tat reprisals.

The value of EU car exports to the US is about 10 times greater than that of the steel and aluminum exports of the block combined, meaning that European retaliation rights are aimed at a larger share of US exports to Europe.

Although Ross said that the Trump government would refrain from imposing new tariffs on the EU as long as their talks about opening up the market are "satisfactory", he made it clear that US car taxes are still possible on national security grounds.

Fast results

Ross said that he had pushed Malmstrom into fast results in their exchange.

"Our goal in the meeting was to focus on the need for speed and on achieving short-term results, including both tariff lighting and standards," Ross said. "This is not intended as a five-year project, which should be something that would go fast and in a cooperative way."

Tuesday after the meeting, Malmström said that "nothing" was going on and an EU official said they took the opportunity to repeat the block's objections to US metal rates, as well as a separate set of American duties on Spanish olives.

At a press conference earlier on Wednesday, Malmstrom reiterated the willingness of the EU to seek a "limited" market-opening agreement with the US on tariffs for industrial goods, saying "so far the US has not shown much interest there, so the ball is in their courtroom. "

Part of the complexity of the whole problem lies in institutional factors. Malmstrom's counterpart in Washington is the American trade representative Robert Lighthizer, while Ross is responsible for investigating whether US imports of car goods pose a national security risk.

European barriers

In addition to emphasizing the need to focus on product standards, Ross demonstrated on Wednesday a desire to tackle European barriers to trade in agricultural products.

EU officials have insisted that agricultural products fall out of reach of the deal in July between Juncker and Trump (with the exception of a European vow to buy more American soybeans, something that creates market forces because American shipments to China have been hit by a Chinese rate imposed as part of an escalating trade dispute between Beijing and Washington).

"We are interested in exploring all sectors where protectionist things happen," said Ross.

Gordon Sondland, the American ambassador to the EU, joined Ross during the briefing and was blunt about the issue of agricultural products. "Agriculture has always been part of the discussion and must be part of the discussion to conclude an agreement," Sondland said.