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Trump’s tariff plan brings scalding responses in Europe

Trump’s announcement of a 25 percent tariff on steel imports could greatly affect products that you may not know depend on it, like Reddi-wip. (Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

BERLIN — European officials have not minced their words in recent months to lash out at a U.S. president they often consider to be an obstacle rather than an ally. But Friday’s responses to Trump’s announcement to impose punishing tariffs on imported steel and aluminum triggered some of the sharpest backlash from a number of European countries.

Officials in Germany, which exports more steel to the United States than any other European country, were among the most vocal critics. The country’s foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, whose regular criticism of Trump has almost become routine by now, called the U.S. decision “unfathomable.”

“We must do everything we can to avoid an international trade conflict,” said Gabriel, speaking to German daily Die Welt. Industry representatives voiced fears that President Trump’s announcement could lead to job losses in Germany, and elsewhere on the continent.

Meanwhile, Bernd Lange, a German Social Democrat and member of the European Parliament, where he serves as the head of the trade committee, offered a more brutal assessment. “With this, the declaration of war has arrived,” Lange told German public radio on Friday morning.

His remarks came before a Trump tweet in which he wrote that “trade wars are good, and easy to win.”

“They have a mercantile trade model in their heads that dates back 200 years,” Lange said earlier, referring to the White House.

Lange acknowledged that Germany was not the nation most affected by the tariffs, even though officials there have been among the most outspoken representatives on the issue. Last year, only 3 percent of U.S. steel imports came from Germany, and far more originated in Canada, South Korea or Mexico — nations which have also raised major concerns over the policy.

But Europeans view the introduction of tariffs — planned 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum, in this case — as yet another indication that Trump is pursuing a “national, nationalistic protectionism,” as European Parliament trade committee head Lange put it.

Trump’s official reasoning behind the tariffs, he said, was “absurd” and “contradicted the reality of global trade relationships.”

Lange and others also expressed fears that the tariffs could eventually be expanded to other fields, such as computers.

“It’s a bottomless pit,” said Lange. Many officials here see the tariffs as part of broader concerns they have over Trump’s “America First” agenda and what it means for the continent that has so far relied more on U.S. partnership than other blocs or countries.

In Europe, there also appears to be a growing assumption that diplomacy alone is not working in dealing with the current U.S. administration. The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, called the Trump proposal “a blatant intervention to protect U.S. domestic industry,” and threatened to take countermeasures.

“We will not sit idly while our industry is hit with unfair measures that put thousands of European jobs at risk.”

Trump’s move is now expected to trigger legal challenges by China, the European Union, Brazil and possibly other nations at the World Trade Organization.

The European reactions to Trump’s tariffs announcement also again revealed differences in how countries here have responded to the president’s tweets and policies.

There were no immediate public condemnations by top British government officials, a country that has been the target of multiple unfavorable Trump tweets in recent months but whose leaders have practiced more public restraint at criticizing Trump.

According to the Daily Telegraph, British ministers had quietly tried to prevent the levying of tariffs in  recent weeks. They were reportedly reassured by U.S. officials that measures would not affect the British industry, which is already bracing for the economic repercussions of leaving the E.U. single market.

But speaking on Friday, a leading representative for the British steel industry warned that the U.S. measures would in fact have a “significant impact.”

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