Brussels has warned that it stands ready to retaliate and potentially open up a transatlantic trade war if the US delivers on apparent threats to restrict European imports.
The US president, Donald Trump, claimed in an interview with ITV broadcast on Sunday that the EU had been “very unfair” on American exporters, and that it would “morph into something very big” that would “turn out to be very much to [the EU’s] detriment”.
Washington is currently examining the case for protecting US economic interests on national security grounds, including the imposition of import tariffs on aluminium and steel.
Responding to Trump’s comments, a spokesman for the European commission told reporters in Brussels that the EU was ready to hit back if its importers were made to suffer.
“We also believe that while trade has to be open and fair it also has to be rules-based. The European Union stands ready to react swiftly and appropriately in case our exports are affected by any restrictive trade measures by the United States.”
Asked what measures could be taken by Brussels, the spokesman said he would be “better understood if I don’t elaborate any further”.
In his interview with Piers Morgan, Trump had spoken of his own experience dealing with the EU. He has previously complained to its leaders that, as a businessman, the bloc had made it difficult for him to set up golf courses.
Trump, who has described Brexit as a great thing, told Morgan: “I’ve had a lot of problems with European Union, and it may morph into something very big from that standpoint, from a trade standpoint.
“We cannot get our product in. It’s very, very tough. And yet they send their product to us – no taxes, very little taxes. It’s very unfair.
“They’re not the only one, by the way. I could name many countries and places that do. But the European Union has been very, very unfair to the United States. And I think it will turn out to be very much to their detriment.”
The comments appeared to bring closer the possibility of a clash over trade between the EU and the US. Last summer, the EU commissioner for trade, Cecilia Malmström, warned that, should such a “trade war” between the US and the EU be waged, it would be “extremely unfortunate” for the whole world.
In a formal submission last month to the US steel investigation, the European commission had said any “sweeping measure targeting many steel products and all countries for national security reasons is not justified”.
On Saturday, there was great relief in Belfast after a surprise ruling preventing the US from imposing a 292% import tariffs on planes partly made by British workers.
The US commerce department said in December that the UK and Canada had given aerospace firm Bombardier, which employs over a thousand people in Northern Ireland, unfair subsidies.
However, the case, which centred on a complaint by US rival Boeing, was dismissed by the US International Trade Commission (ITC), in a move which was also warmly welcomed in Downing Street.
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