Donald Trump and European Union officials stepped back from a trade war on Wednesday as they struck a deal to work towards “zero” tariffs, barriers and subsidies.
The EU also agreed to buy billions of dollars worth of American exports, including soya beans and natural gas, and work to reform international trade rules.
“So we had a big day, very big,” the US president said in the White House rose garden, standing alongside Jean-Claude Juncker, the European commission president, and proclaiming a “new phase” in US-EU relations.
“We agreed today, first of all, to work together toward zero tariffs, zero non-tariff barriers and zero subsidies on non-auto industrial goods,” Trump said to applause from several House and Senate members present.
Both sides agreed that there will be no escalation of the dispute for now and no new tariiffs will be imposed. Trump and Juncker also said they would “resolve” the steel and aluminum tariffs imposed by the US which started the dispute.
But while their remarks represent a breakthrough after weeks of stalemate, they were short of detail and given Trump’s mercurial record, the detente could easily come undone as negotiations begin in earnest.
Experts urged caution. Bart Oosterveld, director of the global business and economics programme at the Atlantic Council thinktank in Washington, said: “The avoidance of a disaster is not a success. What I think we saw is the resumption of some basic dialogue. Individual items like soybeans and LNG [liquefied natural gas] are not massively significant. I don’t think the EU would agree to a major revision of trade terms without steel and aluminium being taken off the table first.”
Recalling numerous recent differences between the US and EU, ranging from the Paris climate accord to the Iran nuclear deal, Oosterveld welcomed the signs of cooperation. “To the extent they’ve agreed to continue to talk and take a joint approach to Chinese trade practices, it’s significant. This puts everything on a slightly more stable footing. To see them make joint statements on the WTO, for example, is a positive we haven’t seen in a while. But those of us who care about a rules-based order on global trade shouldn’t run a victory lap just yet.”
The US also remains on the edge of a full-on trade war with China and Trump has yet to step back from his conflicts with Mexico and Canada. He has long held railed against perceived imbalance in America’s trade relationships.
Earlier on Wednesday, Trump accused China of being “vicious” and made further threats of retaliation. “China is targeting our farmers, who they know I love & respect, as a way of getting me to continue allowing them to take advantage of the U.S. They are being vicious in what will be their failed attempt. We were being nice – until now! China made $517 Billion on us last year,” he tweeted.
At the surprise press conference, the US president also announced that the EU would begin importing more liquefied natural gas and soybeans from the US. Trump said: “The European Union is going to start almost immediately to buy a lot of soybeans – a tremendous market – buy a lot of soybeans from our farmers in the midwest primarily.”
The impact of a trade war on agriculture has been a growing political concern. The White House has been forced to promise a $12bn aid plan to subsidise farmers hit by retaliatory tariffs imposed by China and the EU.
Trump said the EU-US negotiations would be led by an “executive working group” of “very intelligent people on both sides”, aiming to make trade more “fair” and “reciprocal”.
The US and EU, which have a $1tn bilateral trade relationship, would also work together to reform the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and cut down on unfair trade practices. Trump added: “This was a very big day for free and fair trade, a very big day indeed.”