We’ve all been there, right? A tricky week at work, so you decide to start a trade war with the whole world.
Having lost his longest serving aide, again chastising his “Mr Magoo” Attorney General, and it then becoming public knowledge that his son in law and senior White House adviser took half a billion dollars from senior bankers to help refinance his personal and business debts, Donald Trump decided to throw a dead cat on the table and announce blanket 25% tariffs on all US steel imports.
But this reckless and impetuous act can’t be dismissed as yet another example of Trumpian bluster. It has real world consequences, and is deeply troubling for the British steel industry, which is centred on the Port Talbot steelworks in my Aberavon constituency.
10% of Tata Steel UK’s exports are to the United States, and most of these exports are among the most advanced and high value-added steel products that exist. Some are steels that only we produce, and most are steel products that the Americans are unable to produce themselves.
So, with these tariffs Trump is set to cut of his nose to spite his face. He is putting both British and American jobs at risk, simply to throw some protectionist red meat to his support base in the American rust belt, and to distract from yet another week of scandal and incompetence in Washington DC.
The irony, of course, is that in the name of tackling illegal Chinese dumping, Trump may, in fact, enable more of it. If there are 25% tariffs on British, French, German and Chinese steel, the state owned and subsidised Chinese steel is still going to come out cheaper. This may mean the only steel that can be imported is Chinese, with NATO allies such as the UK being frozen out. Peak irony given that these tariffs are being proposed on the basis of self-evidently spurious national security concerns. So much for the ‘Special Relationship’….
Anyone who knows anything about the global steel market knows that the only way to tackle illegal Chinese steel dumping is through coordinated international action, not one-size-fits-all tariffs that will hit those who play by the rules, as we do. The Prime Minister must urgently make all of this crystal clear to Trump, and show that she is willing to fight to Save Our Steel.
Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liam Fox, David Davis and their merry band of Brexiteers have spoken at length about ‘Global Britain’, and how Brexit is going to open the door to a Narnia-like world of new trading relationships with major players such as the US and China. Well, Mr Trump is now offering them a golden opportunity to turn all that swashbuckling rhetoric into reality. Over to you, Boris.
The Prime Minister was willing to hold Donald Trump’s hand on her White House visit, but steelworkers will judge Mrs May on her ability to force his hand on these ill-judged tariffs. The PM must ensure that, as a minimum, high quality British steel products exported to the USA are exempted from this tariff – something that should be the case for exports from all fellow NATO members as well. And she must also secure assurances from the President that, when the details of these tariffs are announced next week, that they be proportional and part of a wider international effort to crack down on Chinese dumping.
To that end, the European Commission has for some considerable time been pressing for stronger powers to tackle Chinese dumping. The British government should be at the forefront of these discussions, making clear that a post-Brexit Britain will be a global leader in the fight for free and fair trade. Thousands of steelworkers voted to leave the EU because they were told that it would deliver a new era in international trade, for ‘Global Britain’.
If the Government is to deliver on that promise the Prime Minister must start by forcing President Trump to change course, and then she must deliver a Brexit that protects jobs and trade, which can only be achieved by joining the European Economic Area. Trump is playing politics with people’s jobs and livelihoods. He shoots from the hip, and he must be stopped. But, his clumsy and cack-handed announcement has thrown a sharp light onto the extent of our post-Brexit isolation.
It’s therefore impossible to over-state the importance of the government amending the Customs Bill to ensure we have proper trade defence instruments after Brexit, particularly when it comes to the calculation of dumping. Taken in conjunction with these Trump tariffs, the lack of proper measures to combat dumping risks leaving a post-Brexit Britain acutely vulnerable to Chinese under-cutting.
With a blanket 25% tariff aimed at reducing imports into the US of upwards of 20 million tonnes of Chinese steel, this dumped steel product will look for a new home in markets such as the UK and EU. Without meaningful anti-dumping measures in place and a strong UK and EU response we could see a return to the crisis of 2016.
The Government’s commitment to creating a Trade Remedies Agency (TRA) through the Customs Bill is certainly welcome, but it will be a futile gesture if the TRA has its hands tied by the government, which seems to be intent on forcing it to jump through all sorts of hoops before it can take action. British steelworkers will not forgive the Prime Minister if their voice goes unheard.
And I have one simple message for Donald Trump: you won’t help American workers by thumping British steelworkers. British and American steelworkers have stood together in solidarity against illegal Chinese dumping; it is about time that our political leaders, Prime Ministers and Presidents, followed steelworkers’ lead in standing together, not turning on one another.
British steelworkers make the best steel that money can buy, so nobody is asking for charity or special treatment here. All they want and need is the chance to compete on a level playing field. Because trade can only be truly free if it’s truly fair. So, let’s tackle the scourge of dumping with smart, targeted and focused measures, as opposed to the self-defeating scatter-gun approach that Trump is proposing. And let’s tackle it together.