Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Global trade protectionism: politics at its worst

To start with, here is a great quote from Jagdish Bhagwati - courtesy of the Cato Institute's Center for Trade Policy Studies:

"[L]abour union lobbies and their political friends have decided that the ideal defence against competition from the poor countries is to raise their cost of production by forcing their standards up, claiming that competition with countries with lower standards is “unfair”. “Free but fair trade” becomes an exercise in insidious protectionism that few recognise as such."
"Obama and Trade: An Alarm Sounds," Financial Times. January 9, 2009.


Lest anyone thought that one party controlling the Congress and the White House is such a handy idea, there is a welcome package for the EU's exporters being prepared by the Democrats.

According to the reports in today's press, President Obama's much-awaited $825bn stimulus package will include a “Buy America” clause - the American Steel First Act. The act will ensure that only US-made steel will be used in $64 billion of federally financed infrastructure projects.

Clearly, Anyone-but-the-Republicans EU leadership is going to see some nasty surprises from the new Administration - if not courtesy of Mr Obama himself, then certainly thanks to the good old protectionist traditional Democrats that Europeans love so much.

The initiative has already secured the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee blessing and is about to trigger a new Steel War with Europe. The EU Commission is already making noises about taking the US to WTO. The US, of course, signed and ratified the WTO's Government Procurement Agreement which requires it to grant fair access to its federally financed projects to all competitors.

If course, some EU states themselves are toying with 'Buy Domestic' types of rescue packages. France, usually the leader of the protectionist pack despite being economically open when it comes to French sales and investments abroad has squeezed in a €6bn aid package for its automakers that includes a commitment for them to purchase on French-made components.

In the UK, plans to give state aid to car makers are also reportedly to include assurances from the comapnies not to use funds outside the country.

A similar €4bn package of aid to Saab and Volvo in Sweden also came with the same strings attached.

And then there is a decision to reintroduce dairy export subsidies by the EU's Agricultural Commissioner, Mariann Fischer Boel. The measure is not only protectionist, but came despite the EU commitment in November 2008 not to introduce new trade barriers in order to allow the troubled Doha Round of global trade talks to be finalised with some face-saving dignity for the WTO.

So maybe in the end Mr Obama is an EU-like President?

Of course, the developing nations are also moving in quickly to shut some of their markets to foreign competition, but this is hardly a reasonable ground for EU and US to start erecting their own trade barriers. History offers a somber reminder: passage of the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act in the US triggered a wave of tariff increases across the world. Within a year, average foodstuffs tariffs went up 53% in France, 60% in Austria, 66% in Italy, 75% in Yugoslavia, 80% plus in Czechoslovakia, Germany, Romania and Spain and more than doubled in Bulgaria, Finland and Poland. We all know what that led the world...
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