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Europe’s Trade Victory in Washington

US President Donald Trump holds himself out as a brilliant negotiator, and his supporters regard his trade policy as a perfect example of his success. But in his recent trade talks with the Europeans, Trump was clearly out of his depth.

WASHINGTON, DC – On July 25, when US President Donald Trump appeared in front of the White House with Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, their joint statement and spoken remarks surprised many. The two sides agreed “to work together toward zero tariffs, zero non-tariff barriers, and zero subsidies on non-auto industrial goods.” It seemed like a remarkable U-turn for Trump, who, until recently, was threatening the European Union with higher tariffs – and extolling the value of trade tariffs (which are essentially taxes on imported goods) more generally. He even called the EU a “foe” as recently as June.

Substantive follow-through on the joint US-EU statement would represent a major policy shift for the Trump administration. But this is no triumph for Trump; rather, he seems to have been outmaneuvered by adroit European diplomats.

It is always hard to know when Trump has actually changed a policy – or when he may change it again. Still, it is worth noting that what Trump and Juncker announced was essentially a pledge to work toward exactly the kind of trade agreement that the Obama administration was negotiating with the Europeans from 2013 through the end of 2016. Work on that earlier version, known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), was suspended following Trump’s inauguration.

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