U.S. President Donald Trump's trade envoy is meeting Saturday with top officials from the European Union and Japan, who are pushing back against new U.S. steel tariffs that have unleashed fears of a broader trade war.
The EU is seeking clarity from Washington about whether the 28-nation bloc will be exempt from the U.S. tariffs, which come into force in two weeks. If not, the EU has threatened retaliatory tariffs on U.S. products like peanut butter and orange juice.
EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem met Saturday in Brussels with Japanese Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Hiroshige Seko, before U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer arrived to join them for three-way talks as well as individual discussions with the EU and Japanese trade chiefs.
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The meeting had been previously planned but took on greater importance because of Trump's announcement of a 25-percent tariff on steel imports and 10 percent on aluminum imports.
Key U.S. trading partners and businesses have warned the tariffs could backfire, provoking a trade war and hurting allies like the EU and Japan more than China, their main target.
Japan's government has warned the measure could hurt its economic relations with the U.S. But ahead of Saturday's talks, Seko also cautioned that "falling to exchanges of unilateral measures will not be in the interest of any country," according to the Kyodo news agency. He was apparently referring to the EU threats of retaliation.
Trump argues the tariffs are designed to protect U.S. jobs and national security. He said Canada and Mexico are exempt for now, and other countries could be spared if they can convince the administration that their steel and aluminum exports don't threaten American industry.
The EU insists that it is committed to open, global trade. Malmstroem said the real problem is an oversupply of steel on global markets, and she rejected Trump's assertion that the tariffs are needed to protect U.S. national security, especially when most EU countries are members of NATO.
"We are friends. We are allies. We work together. We cannot possibly be a threat to national security in the U.S., so we are counting on being excluded," she said Friday.
The EU exported about 5.5 million tons of steel to the U.S. last year. America bought 5 percent of Japan's steel last year but just 1.1 percent of China's steel.
Foreign steel producers are not only concerned about losing access to the U.S. market but also that steel from other exporters will flood already saturated markets, threatening jobs elsewhere.
The EU has warned that it stands ready to slap "rebalancing" tariffs on about 2.8 billion euros ($3.4 billion) worth of U.S. steel, agricultural and other products, like peanut butter, cranberries and orange juice.