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France and Belgium Refuse Support for New Trade Talks With the U.S.

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BRUSSELS — France and Belgium refused on Monday to support the launch of new trade negotiations between the European Union and the United States, highlighting divisions over President Trump’s trade and climate policies.

The opposition by France and an abstention by Belgium arose during a vote by agricultural ministers. Neither is enough to prevent negotiations, but officials in Brussels said that such a fracture was virtually unheard-of in the bloc’s recent history. Trade measures like this normally pass unanimously.

President Emmanuel Macron of France has said he objects to negotiations because the Trump administration withdrew from the Paris climate agreement in 2017. But the vote also shows that nationalist sentiment stoked by Mr. Trump in the United States can influence European politics, experts say.

Mr. Macron faces pressure from a populist movement at home to adopt more protectionist trade policies, notably for agricultural products, ahead of European Parliament elections in May. At the same time, an environmentalist youth movement has risen in France and across Europe.

But France is not the only European Union member balking over trade talks with the United States. Punitive tariffs and tough talk by Mr. Trump in the past year have made key American allies wary.

The vote on Monday by member states was focused on two mandates for the European negotiators to pursue: to eliminate tariffs for industrial goods, excluding agricultural goods, and to make it easier for companies in the United States and the European Union to meet the other’s technical requirements.

Last month, a majority of the European Parliament voted down a nonbinding resolution in support of the negotiation mandates.

Philippe Lamberts, a Belgian member of Parliament for the European Green Party, voted against the mandates. The far left, the far right and the Greens usually oppose any trade deal that does not include tough environmental standards and certain protectionist measures, particularly in the agricultural sector, Mr. Lamberts said.

“What’s new here is that an increasing faction of the socialist group and the French representatives in general want to repair their reputation on free trade deals ahead of the elections,” he said, referring to next month’s ballot.

Belgium abstained because the regional government of Wallonia, a French-speaking area in the south, viewed the negotiations much like France, according to a Belgian diplomat, who declined to speak on the record given the continuing negotiations.

In 2016, Wallonia temporarily blocked the ratification of a free-trade deal between the European Union and Canada, on both protectionist and environmentalist grounds.

The two negotiation mandates were first proposed in January by the European Commission, which negotiates trade deals for the bloc’s 28 member states.

Last year, Mr. Trump imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum produced in the European Union. The European Union retaliated with tariffs on a list of goods imported from the United States. In July, leaders on both sides called a truce during a meeting in Washington and vowed to work toward a free-trade agreement.

However, Congress has made clear that it will not ratify any trade agreement with the European Union that doesn’t include agriculture. And the Trump administration has repeatedly insisted that agriculture be included in later negotiations, something that European countries, including France, have forcefully resisted. Meanwhile, the United States has been threatening to impose punitive tariffs on European car imports.

Peter Chase, a former United States trade representative in Brussels and currently a resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, said: “The U.S. administration is trying to push Europeans to adopt a negotiating mandate using the threat of the auto tariffs to ensure that mandate is broad and includes agriculture. The U.S. will push, and the E.U. will push back.”

“I do think that it is possible that the U.S.-E.U. trade relationship will become more contentious over the next few months,” he said.

The European Union “is not afraid of anything,” Cecilia Malmstrom, the bloc’s chief trade negotiator, said during a news conference on Monday afternoon.

“I’m aware of some of the concerns and the fears” in the European Parliament and by certain member states, she said, but “the fears they had have been accommodated in amendments to this morning’s mandates.”

“Agriculture will certainly not be part of these negotiations — this is a red line for Europe,” she said.


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