UK trade secretary lends weight to push for exemption from US Section 232 tariffs

The United Kingdom's trade department has said it will work with industry to try and convince the United States to exempt British products from the Section 232 import tariffs.

The UK government will be assisting UK industry “as they work with US customers to build their cases for the exemption of individual products” from US president Donald Trump’s Section 232 tariffs on imported steel and aluminium, UK international trade secretary Liam Fox told the UK parliament late on Monday March 12.

Fox will travel to the US capital Washington DC this week to meet with US trade representative Robert Lighthizer and US commerce secretary Wilbur Ross “to make the case for the UK as part of the EU.”

Unilateral trade measures such as the Section 232 tariffs have “weak foundations in international law,” Fox said, adding that the tariffs are “not consistent with the US Department of Defense’s own judgment in an investigation that was conducted on the basis of national security.”

The Section 232 tariffs on imported steel and aluminium will come into effect on Friday March 23 at 12:01am New York time.

Trump signed the 232 tariffs – 25% duties on foreign steel and 10% duties on aluminium – into law with two separate proclamations on Thursday March 8.

“There is undoubtedly a problem of overcapacity in the global steel market, but our strong view is that a global problem requires a global solution, not unilateral action,” Fox said.

For products within the scope of the 232 investigation, the US accounted for 7% of UK steel exports and 3% of UK aluminium exports in 2017, according to the UK government.

In comparison, the UK accounted for 1% of US steel imports in tonnage, which was worth £360 million ($499.62 million) and 0.1% of US aluminium imports, at a value of £29 million ($40.25 million).

“The truth is that the US president is seeking to bully and threaten his trading partners to bring them weakened to the negotiating table,” UK shadow secretary of trade Barry Gardiner said in response to Fox’s speech.

“In the part of Glasgow [in Scotland] where I grew up, that was called a protection racket,” Gardiner said.

“If the [Fox] does go down this route of trying to secure an exemption, will he give a commitment now to be totally transparent about any price that he has to pay and any assurances that he has to give to the US administration to get it?” Gardiner added.

Industry body UK Steel welcomed the British government’s opposition to the US imposition of tariffs on steel and aluminium imports from UK.

“It is imperative that the secretary of state now uses every opportunity possible in his Washington visit this week to help secure UK and EU exemptions before the deadline of March 23,” UK Steel director Gareth Stace said.

Australia has secured an exemption from the Trump administration’s Section 232 tariffs on steel and aluminium imports, Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said on Monday March 12.

Elsewhere, France’s finance and economy minister, Bruno Le Maire, has said that Europe does not want to enter into “any type of trade war” with the US due to that country’s Section 232 import tariffs, but will take the necessary steps to defend itself.

“We will defend our plants, economy, industry and jobs,” he said at a conference organized by European steel association Eurofer in Brussels on March 12.