EU leaders postponed a decision on trade as the first day of a European Council summit wrapped up around 1AM on Friday morning (23 March), in a display of their wariness about the Trump administration’s announcement hours earlier that it will exempt Europe from tariffs on steel and aluminium.
“We have to wait overnight to see what the decisions of the American administration look like,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters as she left the European Council building after the meeting.
“Tonight, or this morning, we cannot definitively say how the decisions turned out,” she said.
EU leaders were scheduled to finish discussions on trade over dinner on Thursday evening.
The Trump administration announced the controversial tariffs earlier this month, sparking uproar and threats of retaliatory tariffs from Brussels. The US tariffs are set to go into effect on Friday.
US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer told a Senate committee hearing on Thursday that Trump had decided to “pause the imposition of the tariffs” for the EU and other countries including Mexico, Canada, Australia and Argentina.
But that did not dispel all of the Europeans’ concerns. An EU official said leaders decided to postpone further talks over the US tariffs until later on Friday morning because they still do not know whether the Trump administration will actually give the bloc an exemption, despite Lighthizer’s comments.
No formal decision on the exemption announced by Lighthizer has been published yet.
The Europeans’ wariness highlights their increasingly mistrustful relationship with the Trump administration.
Merkel said all 28 heads of state “thought it was right that the EU sought out the conversation because we think these trade tariffs are not justified and we want to continue seeking out this conversation”.
EU leaders praised EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström for meeting with officials this week in Washington to try to negotiate an exemption, Merkel said.
Malmström met with US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and spoke to Lighthizer. Her trip overlapped with German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier, who also visited Washington this week to attempt a breakthrough on the trade measures.
Merkel warned that the EU “will answer with countermeasures” if the Trump administration ends up imposing tariffs on European steel and aluminium.
The heads of state will begin discussing trade when they reconvene for a second day of meetings on Friday morning at 9AM.
Trump also spoke about the tariffs on Thursday, but his comments also did not soothe the EU leaders’ concerns.
While their meeting was already underway on Thursday afternoon, Trump said during a press conference in Washington that his administration is “just starting a negotiation with the European Union” over an exemption from the tariffs. He criticised the EU for what he described as the bloc’s trade barriers.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May will participate in Friday morning’s talks on trade, although she was scheduled to skip the meeting because the other 27 leaders will later discuss the EU’s position in Brexit negotiations. May will depart before the talks on Brexit.
Earlier on Thursday evening, the heads of state agreed to brief conclusions on trade that did not explicitly mention the US or its decision to impose tariffs on steel and aluminium.
The conclusions said that “the European Council reaffirms its commitment to an open and rules-based multilateral trading system with the WTO at its core, firm in the belief that free and fair trade is one of the most powerful engines for growth, supporting millions of jobs and contributing to prosperity.The EU will continue to pursue a robust trade policy, to promote its values and standards globally and to seek a level playing field.”