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Hello from Brussels, where the barbed-wire barricades have been cleared away, the buses are back running on their usual routes rather than being diverted around the centre and in general the city has the typical morning-after feeling that follows a visit from the US president. Today’s main piece looks at what Joe Biden’s trip to Brussels actually meant for trade, while Charted waters delves into the nature of the trading relationship between the two jurisdictions.
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Warm words now, but a cold reality awaits
And so the US presidential procession leaves behind, certainly in Brussels trade circles, a profound sense of relief that they are dealing with the personable and constructive Joe Biden and Katherine Tai rather than the abrasive and frequently toxic Donald Trump and Robert Lighthizer.
The big victory was the Airbus-Boeing deal after a mere 17 years of World Trade Organization litigation, not just in itself but for what it said about the possibilities of constructive engagement. Tai, the US trade representative, told a media roundtable in Brussels on Tuesday: “This was a test of our relationship and our ability to build confidence and trust.” However, as Trade Secrets wrote yesterday, it’s not a given that an ad hoc make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach will work between two economies and their aircraft manufacturers, which still have serious problems with each other’s subsidy models.
In fact, if you had to sum up the entire encounter, it was that while leaders and officials luxuriate publicly in a rhetorical hot tub of co-operation and mutual appreciation, they still need to pass through a cold shower of political and legal reality on the way to the changing rooms.
Having China as a rival in common is certainly a useful bonding experience and framing device. The Airbus-Boeing deal was portrayed as a joint response to the rise of aircraft manufacturers in non-market economies. Similarly, the US pledge to fix the “Section 232” national security tariffs on EU steel and aluminium that the Biden administration inherited from Trump was put in the context of global overcapacity driven by Chinese (and others’) steel production.
Still, when it comes to a choice between irritating an ally such as the EU (and possibly breaking international law) and disappointing a politically powerful domestic constituency such as the steel industry, which likes the tariffs, the Biden administration has so far chosen the former.
Plans to remove existing transatlantic irritants remain either fragile or aspirational. The Airbus-Boeing subsidies have been suspended but not abolished. Tai said on Tuesday: “We have pivoted to co-operation and collaboration, but it is going to be helpful to have the ability to bring these tariffs back to keep each other honest.” In other words: trust but verify, agree a ceasefire but do not disarm.
On the Section 232s, which are supposed to be fixed by the beginning of December, Tai said: “There are hard questions that we have to face and deep feelings that we’re going to have to address . . . we’re going to push ourselves and our partners in the EU for an outcome that is going to be good for our relationship, for our industries, for our economies, for our workers”. If you believe the zero-sum logic of protectionism, there may be some difficulty in addressing all those goals at once.
There are mysterious nose-tapping “wait and see” noises from both sides about how they might punch enough of a hole in the 232 tariff wall to let some European steel and aluminium into the US without alienating blue-collar workers enough to hand the Midwest to the Republicans. But it’s going to be technically and politically difficult to get that done in less than six months.
As for the WTO itself, certainly the Biden administration pleased the EU and others by moving quickly in its early weeks to unblock the appointment of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as director-general. But that wasn’t politically costly: only isolationist headbangers in US politics and business really want to destroy the institution. Asked on Tuesday about the prospects for reviving the WTO’s at-present paralysed appellate body, long disliked by the US steel industry for ruling American antidumping duties illegal, Tai said: “I’m definitely not answering that.”
The goodwill certainly sounds like it’s there. Every utterance on both sides was suffused with the rhetoric of co-operation. Tai even went out of her way to praise the EU for its submission to the WTO on the vaccine IP issue which, unlike the US stance, does not call for a patent waiver.
On that subject, incidentally, while declining to rule out the US itself submitting a negotiating text, she said: “I think that we have a unique ability in the WTO on this issue to be a facilitator, to have credibility with the different sides”. This strengthens our view that the US is far happier to get the good PR from supporting a waiver in principle than to stick its neck out by taking a position in the talks.
Whatever the vibe, the Biden administration is overwhelmingly focused on its domestic economy and maintaining political support, and the EU doesn’t have any votes in the next year’s US midterm elections. We’ll watch the outcomes with interest but without great confidence that everything will get fixed in short order.
We’ve written about the diplomatic relationship, but what about trade between the EU and US itself? As the chart below shows, the two have a tight — and increasingly important — relationship. The EU’s surplus has grown slightly of late, though by a smaller factor than the growth in total values of traded goods.
In terms of industries, here’s a breakdown of the most valued ones for the EU. The importance of machinery and transport equipment goes some way to explaining why Trump’s threat of tariffs on the car industry did so much to rile lawmakers here. Claire Jones
A round-up of stories from the Financial Times this morning. As jurisdictions get tougher on due diligence, lawyers are helping companies clean up their supply chains. We also have an opinion article, which pushes for a global consensus on how to stress test supply chains. This follows calls from the US — wise in our view — to set up a global forum for supply chain resilience. New Zealand wants to agree trade deals with the EU and UK this year in an attempt to become less reliant on China.
Many countries have imposed sanctions on Myanmar following the military coup earlier this year. Not so Moscow. Nikkei ($) reports that Russia’s rolling out of the welcome mat for Myanmar’s air force commander was a cue to the junta that its arms will flow to the south-east Asian nation.
Bloomberg ($) has a piece on European car sales failing to recover to pre-pandemic levels. We think this may have something to do with chip-induced supply shortages. In the meantime, the price of used cars has surged. Alan Beattie and Claire Jones
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