By Catherine Stupp
(EurActiv) — The EU is unlikely to secure permanent exemption from US steel and aluminium tariffs by the time President Trump’s stopgap reprieve from the measures expires on 1 May, Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said Friday.
EU heads of state said at a European Council summit on Friday (23 March) that Trump’s decision to give the bloc a temporary exemption was unacceptable.
“It seems to me highly impossible to cover all issues we have to discuss with our American partners from now to 1 May. And we are asking for permanent exemption,” Juncker told reporters at the end of the two-day summit.
His comments echoed the leaders’ official conclusions from Friday’s meeting, which said that the European Council “calls for that exemption to be made permanent” and “regrets the decision by the United States to impose import tariffs on steel and aluminium”.
The EU conclusions were published several hours after the Trump administration released an official declaration detailing its last-minute exemptions from the tariffs early Friday morning. The document states that exemptions will run out on 1 May unless “satisfactory alternative means” are agreed by then, and apply to the European Union and other countries including Canada, Mexico and Australia.
The tariffs went into effect on Friday. EU leaders were scheduled to issue a response to the measures on Thursday evening but postponed their discussion on trade because they wanted to wait for the Trump administration to publish an official confirmation of the exemptions.
Juncker predicted that an agreement within the next five weeks would be a “not very realistic one given the broad issues we have to discuss”.
Other EU leaders also expressed frustration with the short period for negotiations.
Trump’s temporary exemption was like “putting a gun to our head”, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said at the start of Friday’s meeting.
But Juncker underscored one positive aspect to Trump’s decision: he said the US president had been persuaded to grant the exemption because EU member states had stuck together in negotiations.
Trump “recognises the EU is an entity, cannot be divided in 28 parts. That’s the good part,” Juncker said.
The Commission is responsible for negotiating trade deals on behalf of all EU member states. Trump’s statements earlier in his term suggested that he was unfamiliar with the bloc’s trade rules. He reportedly asked German Chancellor Angela Merkel about a bilateral agreement between the US and Germany.
Juncker attributed the US exemption to meetings between EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström and Trump administration officials earlier this week. Malmstöm met with US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer in Washington earlier this week.
One result of those meetings was an agreement to set up an EU-US working group to resolve trade concerns.
In a tweet on Friday morning, Malmström called the tariffs a “highly unfortunate unilateral action” but said it was “good that the EU is exempt for the time being”.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel also praised Malmström negotiating efforts. In a joint press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron, meant as a display of unity, both leaders said talks with the US should continue, and that they hoped to secure a permanent exemption from the tariffs.
“We don’t want to enter into a spiral where at the end of the road we all lose,” Merkel said.
Macron called the US’ “very temporary exemption” from the tariffs “not satisfactory enough”.
Asked whether the EU should make concessions to Trump in negotiations over extending the tariff exemption, Macron warned that the US should not box the Europeans into a corner.
“We discuss everything with a country that is a friend and complies with WTO rules, but we talk about nothing in principle with a gun pointed at our head,” the French president told reporters.
“We are not willing to be weak vis-a-vis any country, any sector where we are being put a timeframe of a couple of weeks,” he said. “Europe will not waiver.”
Trump had lashed out at the EU on Thursday for what he described as restrictions on American firms’ market access in Europe.
“They have barriers that — they can trade with us but we can’t trade with them. They’re very strong barriers. They have very high tariffs. We don’t. It’s just not fair,” Trump said at a White House press conference.
Macron said that the US tariffs are the “wrong answer to a real problem”, referring to China’s steel and aluminium overcapacity.
“We Europeans and Americans need to work united rather than one against another,” he said.