“It’s pretty clear they’re trying to wake up American legislators, who are the only ones in government who can influence the president on this issue,” said Chad Bown, a trade expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
Still, the European Union said its response to Trump’s tariffs is designed to conform with World Trade Organization rules, signaling that Europe hopes to avoid a full-blown rupture with the unpredictable U.S. president.
Though Trump has cited national security concerns in limiting shipments of foreign-made metals, the E.U. says it will respond as if the U.S. had implemented traditional import limitations known as “safeguard measures.”
In the Europeans’ view, that would entitle the bloc to levy import taxes on roughly $3.4 billion worth of American products, a figure that corresponds to the value of European metals exports to the United States that did not increase in 2017 compared with the previous year.
E.U. officials described the publication of Friday’s list as a procedural step, not an escalatory one. The measures will now be open to public comment.
“They absolutely do not have interest in a tit-for-tat trade war with the United States,” said Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The E.U. also plans to file a complaint over the U.S. tariffs with the WTO. If the Geneva-based body rules in the E.U.’s favor or three years pass, an additional $4.4 billion in U.S. goods could be hit with a second wave of retaliatory tariffs.
The E.U. shipped $6.2 billion of steel and $1.1 billion of aluminum products to the U.S. last year.
When Trump announced the new import tariffs of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum on March 8, he exempted Canada and Mexico and opened the door to excluding other nations that had a security relationship with the United States.
Cecilia Malmstrom, the E.U.’s trade chief, met two days later with U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer to discuss prospects for an E.U. exemption. Later, she described the talks as “a frank discussion,” adding “the E.U. must be excluded from the announced measures.”
U.S. officials have informed their European counterparts that exemption bids will be determined based upon criteria that include cooperation with the United States in WTO proceedings and in a multilateral forum in Paris aimed at reducing excess global steel production.
Talks with Washington are ongoing, E.U. officials said, and Malmstrom plans to meet sometime next week with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. Germany, which has been the main European target of Trump’s ire, plans to send Economy Minister Peter Altmaier to Washington early next week.
“We are not rushing into any kind of escalation,” an E.U. official in Brussels said, briefing reporters under ground rules of anonymity.
“We are not negotiating our exemption with the United States. We are making the case to the United States we’re security partners,” the official said, adding that the process for arguing for an exemption remained “very unclear.”
The 28 nations in the European Union negotiate trade policy as a bloc, setting tariffs and concluding trade deals in unison, but there is nothing to prevent Trump from granting tariff exemptions to individual countries. That idea has been raised by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who suggested linking defense spending to exemptions.
If Trump started handing out individual exemptions to E.U. members, “that would be absolutely non-acceptable,” the E.U. official said. “Politically, it would be very disruptive for transatlantic relations.”
The official said U.S. officials had not raised the idea in conversations with their European counterparts. The idea is sensitive to Europeans because it could pit E.U. member states against each other and test their solidarity in a core area of European unity.
With the U.S. tariffs slated to take effect on March 23, hopes for a deal are fading. “I’m not optimistic,” Bown said.