Those busy trying to patch up the EU-U.S. trade marriage are now focusing on the real areas where they can make quick progress rather than trying to rekindle the romance all at once.
That was the message of a group of 12 trade counselors visiting Atlanta from European embassies in Washington, who were framed by one of their own as bureaucratic “therapists” for a transatlantic couple that has focused too much on their differences since President Donald Trump took office.
“My definition of marriage is that you agree on 80 percent of issues and you disagree on 20 percent,” said Tomas Baert, head of trade and agriculture section at the EU Delegation to the United States.
Mr. Trump has quashed hopes for a sweeping deal with the 28 EU nations along the lines of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership pushed by former President Obama. Mr. Trump has rankled Europeans by imposing steel and aluminum tariffs based on national security while using the threat for automotive tariffs as a wedge to drive talks.
Mr. Baert said the imposition of auto tariffs would kill any dialogue, admitting the chasm between the partners can seem wide at times. The EU and U.S. have bickered for decades over issues like geographic indicators for products like champagne, phytosanitary standards for meat and poultry, agricultural subsidies and government procurement.
The EU has consciously tabled some of these sticking points, hoping that smaller victories will turn into a “snowball” effect of goodwill that will restore trust, Mr. Baert said.
“Let’s stop dreaming; let’s stop thinking about what is desirable. Let’s think about what is doable,” he told Global Atlanta.
Industrial tariffs are one area where the EU has wiggle room, and the bloc would go to zero on autos with the right deal. Another starting point for talks would be harmonizing costly regulations like crash testing for cars, he said, reviving a talking point from the TTIP negotiations. Trade talks, he said, should be like “peeling an onion” — addressing both “specific and systemic” issues progressively.
The turbulence in the relationship has driven the EU to make its case more regularly and in parts of the U.S. that are more impacted by trade dustups. The South in particular is vulnerable to tariffs on foreign auto makers, who employ thousands in factories dotting the region.
Just last week Atlanta hosted a joint visit by ambassadors from Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg, who warned against increased protectionism and touted foreign investment in the state.
The current visit of the EU trade delegates is one of two planned by the bloc in the U.S. each year. Austria, which has the rotating presidency of the EU, helped organize the trip and sent its ambassador to open the Dec. 12 forum at Georgia Tech.
Ambassador Wolfgang Waldner told Global Atlanta it’s clear that areas like Atlanta still see European companies as key trade and investment partners. The current conflict crystallizes the need to work on the relationship, he said.
“It just makes us aware of how important it is, and that we have to get our act together,” Dr. Waldner said.
Local panelists John Woodward, senior director of foreign investment at the Metro Atlanta Chamber and Mary Waters, deputy commissioner for trade at the Georgia Department of Economic Development, avoided detailed discussion of the tariffs. They underscored that negative investment impacts of the trade war have been muted so far, but that uncertainty could harm prospects in the long run, especially for smaller companies.
“We haven’t seen a downside yet but we have seen people pulling back on the reins a little bit,” Mr. Woodward said.
Learn more about the event here.