Minister calls for EU and US ‘to step from brink’

Cool heads ‘and dialogue’ must prevail in upcoming trade negotiations, says Pat Breen

Minister for Trade Pat Breen: positive signs in the relationship between the EU and the United States, despite recent turmoil. File photograph: Tom Honan

Minister for Trade Pat Breen: positive signs in the relationship between the EU and the United States, despite recent turmoil. File photograph: Tom Honan

 

Minister of State for Trade Pat Breen has called on the EU and the United States to “step from the brink” amid signs of escalating tensions between the two blocs over trade ahead of Jean-Claude Juncker’s visit on Wednesday.

Speaking in Washington, Mr Breen said that there was a lot of positive signs in the relationship between the EU and the United States, despite recent turmoil.

Asked if he agreed with EU commissioner for Agriculture Phil Hogan’s suggestion earlier this week that the bloc must respond to US president Donald Trump’s trade policies by “bullying” him back, Mr Breen replied that “the only thing that is going to stop the problem at the moment is dialogue, and the fact that we have two senior politicians from Europe here this week and last week give an indication that the relation is beginning to improve”. He was referring to the visit of Mr Juncker and last week’s visit by Michel Barnier.

Minister of State at the Department of Finance Patrick O’Donovan, who is also in Washington this week, said Mr Hogan was speaking in his capacity as an EU politician not as an Irish politician, adding that it was important to look at his speech in the round. “He is ultimately saying as well that the best route forward is for the European Union and the United States is to have dialogue.”

Phil Hogan has a hugely important job from a European agriculture point of view . . . Particularly in the context of the Brexit negotiations.”

Earlier in the day, Mr Trump took to twitter to criticise America’s trade partners, claiming “tariffs are the greatest!”

“Countries that have treated us unfairly on trade for years are all coming to Washington to negotiate. This should have taken place many years ago but, as the saying goes, better late than never!” he wrote.

“Tariffs are the greatest! Either a country which has treated the United States unfairly on Trade negotiates a fair deal, or it gets hit with Tariffs. It’s as simple as that – and everybody’s talking! Remember, we are the “piggy bank” that’s being robbed. All will be Great!” he added.

His comments will add to tensions ahead of Mr Juncker’s visit to the White House on Wednesday.

While the European Union had initially been exempted from steel and aluminium tariffs introduced by the Trump administration, ultimately that waiver ended, resulting in retaliatory action by the EU.

Mr O Donovan and Mr Breen are in Washington this week for meetings on Capitol Hill that are expected to be dominated by trade and immigration issues. These include the impact of recent US tariffs on Aughinish Alumina, the Limerick alumina plant owned by Russian energy giant Rusal.

Both welcomed comments by US treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin over the weekend in which he suggested that Rusal may be spared from Russia sanctions.

Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska, the majority shareholder in EN+ Group, which in turn owns 48 per cent of Rusal, was among the Russians targeted by US sanctions. But the company is working to change its ownership structure to avoid the penalties.

Mr O’ Donovan said that the Aughinish plant is the largest manufacturing plant in the west of Ireland, which employs about 1,000 people directly and indirectly.

“One of the points that I will be raising is that this in an installation in the west of Ireland that is key to the European aluminium industry – over 30 per cent of the European alumina product is coming out of the plant. It is worth an awful lot to the Irish economy, but it also worth an awful lot as well to the US economy.”

Mr Breen also welcomed Mr Mnuchin’s announcement. “I’m satisfied that a lot of progress has been made, both by the Embassy here in Washington [and] my own department,” adding that his role is to “ensure that our voice is heard in relation to Aughinish”.