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‘Declaration of war’: European officials offer brutal responses to Trump tariffs

President Trump on March 1 announced tariffs on steel and aluminum. “Without steel and aluminum, your country is not the same,” Trump said. (Video: The Washington Post)

BERLIN — European officials have not minced words in recent months regarding a U.S. president they often consider to be an obstacle rather than an ally. But Trump's announced intention to impose punishing tariffs on imported steel and aluminum triggered an especially sharp backlash Friday from a number of countries.

In a possible escalation, the European Union is now considering duties on U.S. imports worth about $3.5 billion if the White House pursues its plans, Reuters reported Friday. An E.U. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, later confirmed the report, saying “this is broadly the figure we are looking at.”

“We will put tariffs on Harley-Davidson, on bourbon and on blue jeans — Levi’s,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said, according to Reuters news service. “We would like a reasonable relationship with the United States, but we cannot simply put our head in the sand.”

Officials in Germany, which exports more steel to the United States than any other European country, were among the most vocal critics Friday. Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, whose criticisms of Trump have almost become routine, called the U.S. decision “unfathomable.”

“We must do everything we can to avoid an international trade conflict,” Gabriel told German daily Die Welt.

Bernd Lange, a German Social Democrat and head of the European Parliament's trade committee, offered a more brutal assessment. “With this, the declaration of war has arrived,” Lange told German public radio Friday morning.

“They have a mercantile trade model in their heads that dates back 200 years,” he said.

Lange's remarks came before a Trump tweet in which he wrote that “trade wars are good, and easy to win.”

Germans were not alone in the criticism of Trump. In a strong statement, Bruno Le Maire, France's economy minister, said Friday that “only losers” would result from a potential trade war between the United States and the European Union.

Industry representatives fear that U.S. implementation of tariffs could lead to job losses in Germany and elsewhere on the continent. Even though U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said Friday that the announcement “seemed” to apply globally, some countries  still had hopes that they might be exempt.

Last year, 3 percent of U.S. steel imports came from Germany, and far more originated in Canada, South Korea and Mexico — nations that have also raised major concerns over the policy.

But Europeans view the introduction of tariffs — planned to be 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum, in this case — as yet another indication that Trump is pursuing a “national, nationalistic protectionism,” as Lange put it.

Trump's official reasoning behind the tariffs, he said, was “absurd” and “contradicted the reality of global trade relationships.”

Lange and others also expressed fears that the tariffs could eventually be expanded to other fields, such as computers.

“It's a bottomless pit,” Lange said. Many officials here see the tariffs as part of broader concerns they have over Trump's “America first” agenda and what it means for a continent that has so far relied more on U.S. partnership than other blocs or countries.

Trump's announcement of a 25 percent tariff on steel imports could greatly affect products that you may not know depend on it, like Reddi-wip. (Video: Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

In Europe, there also appears to be a growing assumption that diplomacy alone is not working in dealing with the current U.S. administration. The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, called the Trump proposal “a blatant intervention to protect U.S. domestic industry” and threatened to take countermeasures. “We will not sit idly while our industry is hit with unfair measures that put thousands of European jobs at risk.”

Manfred Weber, a German conservative E.U. lawmaker, said Trump “is playing a dangerous game” and that “the E.U. has to show its strength.”

Trump’s move is expected to trigger legal challenges at the World Trade Organization by China, the European Union, Brazil and possibly other nations. The European Commission will discuss the E.U.'s response at its next weekly meeting Wednesday. An E.U. diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Friday that the European Union is still “waiting to see all the details” on Trump's proposal.

While German and E.U. officials have been very vocal in their reaction to Trump's tariff announcement, the situation revealed again the differences in Britain's responses to the president's tweets and policies.

There were no immediate public condemnations by top British government officials, a nation that has been the target of multiple unfavorable Trump tweets in recent months but whose leaders have practiced public restraint.

According to the Daily Telegraph, British ministers have tried in recent weeks to prevent the levying of tariffs. They were reportedly reassured by U.S. officials that measures would not affect British industry, which is already bracing for the economic repercussions of leaving the E.U. single market.

But speaking Friday, a leading representative of the British steel industry warned that the U.S. measures would, in fact, have a “significant impact” if Britain was not exempt.

James McAuley in Paris and Quentin Ariès in Brussels contributed to this report.

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