French Junior Minister for Foreign Affairs Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne poses during a photo session on February 5, 2018 in Paris. / AFP PHOTO / STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN (Photo credit should read STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/Getty Images)
Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, the French trade minister: 'The good news is that the two parties are refraining from engaging in a trade war' © AFP

France has warned that a trade deal between the US and China must not harm the EU, as the bloc seeks exemption from Washington’s planned tariffs on aluminium and steel next month.

Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, the French trade minister, said Paris welcomed signs of easing tension between Washington and Beijing, after Donald Trump’s administration announced a suspension of tariffs on Chinese steel and aluminium on Saturday.

But in an interview he warned that joint statements on reducing China’s trade surplus with the US remained “vague” and suggested a “face-saving” exercise that ought to make European leaders “vigilant”.

“The good news is that the two parties are refraining from engaging in a trade war,” Mr Lemoyne told the Financial Times. “Now we will have to see the effects and we will be attentive that this does not translate into competitive distortions against products from other countries.”

Beijing’s pledge to increase imports of US agricultural goods were “not massive concessions”, as demographics were likely to achieve that goal, Mr Lemoyne said.

The comments underline how Mr Trump’s administration has unsettled its western allies by threatening them with duties in an attempt to narrow the US trade deficit. EU leaders have maintained a defiant attitude towards the US, saying Washington must permanently and unconditionally lift the threat of steel tariffs — which are due to take effect on June 1 — before the EU will start any wider talks on bilateral trade.

Only after securing a permanent carve-out from US tariffs would the EU address Mr Trump’s trade concerns and offer to work on an overhaul of the World Trade Organization, Mr Lemoyne said.

Emmanuel Macron, the French president, said in March that the EU would not be bullied into trade discussions “with a gun pointed at our head”. But EU unity has been tested, with France advocating a tougher stance towards the US than Germany, which has been keen to avoid a trade spat that would harm its vehicle exports.

Mr Lemoyne said the EU needed to assert its “sovereignty” as the world’s largest trade bloc by “working hard to achieve a harmonised approach” and overcoming “nuances stemming from different economic structures”.

EU foreign affairs and trade ministers meet in Brussels on Tuesday and Mr Lemoyne warned that the EU had to decide whether it wanted to “remained somebody’s doormat or be respected”.

Mr Lemoyne suggested it was especially important for the EU to make its case a year before European parliamentary elections and amid mounting Euroscepticism.

The bloc would invoke its status of historical “ally” to the US, the minister said. But he cautioned: “Allies do not mean vassals.”

The EU has had reason to feel bruised by Washington in the past year. The US move on steel and aluminium follows Mr Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal and reimpose economic sanctions on companies doing business with Tehran. The US president also pulled out of the UN’s 2015 Paris accord on climate change last year.

Mr Lemoyne said that on trade the EU was aiming to replicate Mr Macron’s strategy over Iran, in which the French president offered to work with Mr Trump on a more comprehensive agreement with Iran to salvage the initial nuclear deal.

The WTO no longer functioned well, Mr Lemoyne said, citing its paralysis because decisions had to be unanimous. He said the EU would also be ready to discuss “voluntary co-operation” with the US within the WTO framework.

“We have a positive agenda for the US to tackle imbalances whose roots are not in Europe,” he said. “We think that more multilateralism is the answer, but a more efficient kind of multilateralism.”

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