Hours after the US imposed tariffs on a record $7.5 billion worth of EU goods on Friday in a dispute over Airbus, there were signs the combatants might be ready to negotiate a settlement.
French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire (pictured, AFP) lambasted the US move, calling it a “hostile act” from an ally but later said Washington had “opened the door” to talks to pull back the tariffs on French wines, Scottish whiskies and Spanish olive oil.
The scope of the talks should be “as broad as possible”, Le Maire told reporters on the sidelines of the annual meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
And as for the timing, “the sooner the better”, he said following a meeting with US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.
Le Maire, who has said the EU would have no choice but to retaliate should the tariffs remain in place, also met on Thursday with US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
The US tariff onslaught caps a nearly 15-year dispute over government support for Airbus, which the World Trade Organisation (WTO) found violates global trade rules.
But the latest round of tariffs also come as Washington is mired in a trade war with China and is threatening to put duties on European cars, risking further destabilising the global economy.
Le Maire warned that a US-EU trade dispute would only aid China.
“We don’t want to negotiate with a gun [to] our head. Because when you have a gun to your head, you don’t have any other choice but to retaliate,” he added.
In the line of fire are civilian aircraft from Britain, France, Germany and Spain – the countries that formed Airbus – which face an additional 10 per cent tax when imported to the US.
But the tariffs also target consumer products, including goods such as French wine, which US President Donald Trump had vowed to attack in recent months, wine from Spain and Germany and cheese from Britain.
The tariffs kicked in after the WTO gave formal approval earlier this month.
The Europeans advocate negotiation over conflict and expect the WTO next year will authorise the EU to retaliate against the US in a parallel case over subsidies for Airbus’ US competitor Boeing.
Brussels in July offered to call a truce on subsidies for the aviation companies, in which both sides would admit fault and agree to curtail state aid – to no avail.
As recently as Wednesday, Trump singled out the Europeans for being unfair with the US on trade but said his door was open for talks.
The US Trade Representative’s office did not respond to a request for comment but White House trade adviser Peter Navarro laid the blame on the EU.
“The Airbus tariffs [were] a result of more than a decade-long suit that President Trump brought to fruition in Trump time,” Navarro said on Fox Business. “It’s important to get Airbus to stop subsidising so we can have our own air industry here . . . They can’t retaliate under the rules of the World Trade Organisation.”
Le Maire was clear that the EU would not retaliate in the Boeing case until the WTO makes a final ruling next year.