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Trade Conflict and the U.S.-European Union Economic Relationship

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The United States and the European Union (EU) share a huge, dynamic, and mutually beneficial economic partnership. Not only is the U.S.-EU trade and investment relationship the largest in the world, but it is also arguably the most important. Agreement between the two partners in the past has been critical to making the world trading system more open and efficient.

Given the high level of U.S.-EU commercial interactions, trade tensions and disputes are not unexpected. In the past, U.S.-EU trade relations have witnessed periodic episodes of rising trade tensions and conflicts, only to be followed by successful efforts at dispute settlement. This ebb and flow of trade tensions occurred again last year with high-profile disputes involving the Doha Round of multilateral trade negotiations and production subsidies for the commercial aircraft sector.

Major U.S.-EU trade disputes have varied causes. Some disputes stem from demands from producer interests for support or protection. Trade conflicts involving agriculture, aerospace, steel, and `contingency protection' fit prominently into this grouping. These conflicts tend to be prompted by traditional trade barriers such as subsidies, tariffs, or industrial policy instruments, where the economic dimensions of the conflict predominate. Other conflicts arise when the U.S. or the EU initiate actions or measures to protect or promote their political and economic interests, often in the absence of significant private sector pressures. The underlying cause of these disputes over such issues as sanctions, unilateral trade actions, and preferential trade agreements are different foreign policy goals and priorities of Brussels and Washington. Still other conflicts stem from an array of domestic regulatory policies that reflect differing social and environmental values and objectives. Conflicts over hormone-treated beef, bio-engineered food products, protection of the audio-visual sector, and aircraft hushkits, for example, are rooted in different U.S.-EU regulatory approaches, as well as social preferences.

These three categories of trade conflicts -- traditional, foreign policy, and regulatory -- possess varied potential for future trade conflict. This is due mostly to the fact that bilateral and multilateral agreements governing the settlement of disputes affect each category of disputes differently. By providing a fairly detailed map of permissible actions and obligations, trade agreements can dampen the inclination of governments to supply protection and private sector parties to demand protection.

In sum, U.S.-EU bilateral trade conflicts do not appear to be as ominous and threatening as the media often portray, but they are not ephemeral distractions either. Rather they appear to have real, albeit limited, economic and political consequences for the bilateral relationship. From an economic perspective, the disputes may also be weakening efforts of the two partners to provide strong leadership to the global trading system.