WASHINGTON • The European Union's new trade chief pulled no punches on an inaugural visit to Washington, saying President Donald Trump's tariff threats amount to short-sighted electioneering, and warning him about widespread economic damage from protectionism.
Mr Phil Hogan said Mr Trump's "America First" agenda has helped bring about "a high-pressure crisis moment for the international trading system". He urged the US government to work with the EU to uphold open commerce.
"If we go about this in the right way, working together, the mutual benefits can be very significant," Mr Hogan told a conference in the US capital on Thursday. "But, if we fail to do so, the damage will be significant, not alone for us both, but for the world."
He is seeking to prevent a deterioration in transatlantic commercial ties that have been fraying for months as a result of disagreements over everything from aircraft subsidies to farm tariffs.
He spoke bluntly about growing EU unhappiness over US unilateralism, saying it was driven by Mr Trump's desire for re-election.
"It's short-term thinking," Mr Hogan said in a separate video interview with Global Counsel chairman Peter Mandelson, a former EU trade commissioner. "Between now and the November elections is what Mr Trump is thinking about."
Mr Hogan took a swipe at a preliminary trade agreement between the United States and China, saying it smacked of "managed trade" and threatening an EU complaint to the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
The pact was signed with much fanfare in Washington on Wednesday, two days after Mr Hogan arrived in the city.
The EU is concerned about a Chinese pledge in the deal to increase purchases of US goods and services by at least US$200 billion (S$269 billion) over the next two years.
"We haven't analysed the document in detail but we will, and if there's a WTO-compliance issue, of course we will take the case," Mr Hogan told the Washington conference at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. "We're not trigger-happy about taking cases to the WTO - we don't want to create that impression. But we'll stand up for our own economic interests."
He said Mr Trump is misguidedly "obsessed" with a US deficit in goods trade with the bloc and should also take into account services, where the country has a US$60 billion surplus. Transatlantic trade in goods and services is worth over US$3 billion a day, according to Mr Hogan.
"Sounds like a fairly healthy relationship to me," he said. "So why put tariffs on these EU products to make them more expensive for your people?"
Mr Hogan sharply criticised the Trump administration's invocation of national security to apply duties in 2018 on EU steel and aluminium, and threaten similar levies on European cars and auto parts. The metal duties prompted tit-for-tat EU tariffs, and the bloc has pledged to react the same way if European automotive goods were to be targeted.
"We reject the US labelling the EU as a security risk in order to justify the imposition of tariffs," he said. "This narrative is hurtful to both our people."
Mr Hogan, who met US officials and members of Congress, pleaded for a more diplomatic and collaborative approach from the Trump administration.
"If we continue to beat each other up, then the future risks being lost to new competitors," he said. "Let's talk, let's cooperate, let's lead."
Later on Thursday, as he prepared to leave Washington, Mr Hogan toned down some of his criticisms. He praised the "cooperative spirit" of the American side, and said its trade accord with China has "positive elements" that offer opportunities for the US and EU to work together.
"It's a good start," he said. "A lot done, and more to do."