Trump’s tariffs “a joke” but chance to redesign trade rules, Lamy says


By Stelios Orphanides

The former director-general of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Pascal Lamy said that while the decision of US President Donald Trump to slap a 25 per cent tariff on steel and aluminium imports is one of his “weird initiatives,” it also constitutes a chance to redesign global trade rules.

At the same time, it is also a chance for Europe to reinvent itself and so tackle the rising anti-globalisation sentiment which in turn also threatens European integration, said Lamy who was addressing an audience at the annual lecture of the Cyprus Economic Society in Nicosia on Friday on “Harnessing Globalisation”. At the same time, Europe should avoid overreacting to Trump’s decision announced the day before and instead opt for a reaction compatible with its “multilateral rules-based DNA”.

“It can only be a joke, but it is a terrible joke thinking that the president of the US can see things this way,” Lamy said in reference to a perceived risk to national security with which the US justified the tariffs which angered major partners and allies including the EU, Canada and Mexico.

Lamy, who served as EU trade commissioner from 1999 to 2004 under Romano Prodi before switching to the WTO in 2005, said that he disagreed with those arguing that China was violating global rules on trade.

Any such violations would result in the Asian country being reported to the dispute settlement body of the organisation, Lamy continued. On the other hand, rules of the game, have not adjusted to the new realities and especially in the areas in which China should be more disciplined like in subsidisation and public procurements.

Therefore, the EU could side with the US if it’s about disciplining a number of Chinese trade practices that need to be disciplined,” he said. “So, we have to stay between, siding with China when the US breach the rules and side with the US when China breaches the rules or even side with the US in order to improve a number of rules which need to be improved in order for the level plain field to be more level”.

The Frenchman said that following the global financial crisis a decade ago, one can have “serious doubts” about what he had learned at the beginning of his career that politics and economics “went hand in hand,” with political freedom leading to more prosperity and economic freedom resulting in more political freedom.

“Trump, Brexit, Erdogan, Putin, Xi Jinping are all symptoms of what can be interpreted as a return to nationalism, illiberalism and sometimes even protectionism,” he said. “While the world economy is doing reasonably well, at least much better than in the last ten years, the geopolitical risks are increasing. In a nutshell, economics and politics are diverging”.

While globalisation, defined as the intensification of international exchange, was getting stronger over the past decade driven mainly by technological progress reducing transportation costs and aided by trade encouraging policies, the capacity to harness it, “the capacity to buffer, to amortise the socio-economic impact of that has become weakened,” he said.

The globalisation process, “which is efficient, is efficient (just) because it’s painful and it is painful (just) because it is efficient,” the former EU trade commissioner said.

As a result of the weaker capacity of western democracies to govern and manage globalisation and deal with its socio-economic impact, amid challenges related to the evolution of demographics and immigration, the anti-globalisation sentiment has fuelled far-right extremism who promises to turn back the clocks, Lamy continued. Addressing challenges of globalisation at local level is possible with local level policies such as well-designed welfare systems.

Besides, as the globalisation process is irreversible, the solution is rebalancing it to keep democracy “resilient (and) strong,” he continued.

Overhauling the rules of globalisation will require resorting to components of the Peace Treaty of Westphalia, which in 1648 ended the Thirty-Years’ War which pitted the Habsburg dynasty and its Catholic allies against France and the Protestant kingdoms and states as well as the Eighty-Years’ war which led to the establishment of the Netherlands and introduced the idea of the sovereign state, Lamy said.

Setting up a regime similar to that of the Peace of Westphalia is a “complex, frustrating, (and) very slow process,” based on multilateralism, which the Trump administration rejects, he continued. “Their basic stance is that this multilateralism doesn’t work and if it works, it doesn’t work for the US so let’s get rid of that and go back to where we can exert our influence which is bilateral relations”.

At the same time, one cannot expect that Trump’s ideas on trade would one day go away, like bad weather is followed by sunshine, the former WTO chairman continued and added that Europe could seek the creation of coalitions of states, cities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which, like in the case of the Paris Agreement on climate change three years ago, showed that it is “a direction that can be considered”.

“These coalitions can be more efficient because they are more legitimate,” he said.


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Stelios Orphanides is a journalist at To contact Stelios Orphanides: [email protected]

  • Kevin Ingham

    The biggest threats to world trade and economic stability are China’s trade surplus and the destructive nature of the Euro (not Trumps tariffs)

    In order for trade to work efficiently and most effectively you need floating currencies that reflect economic,social and mercantile reality- and we currently don’t have that

    • Plasma Dawn

      Do not blame China for its trade surplus because the cow wants to be milked just as much as the farmer wants the milk. The West, indeed the world, could not stop purchasing cheap goods from China for the life of them without even bothering that China never reciprocated in kind. So it’s little wonder that they have amassed trillions in trade surplus.

      • Kevin Ingham

        Much of it’s trade surplus is down to the fact China does not allow the Renminbi to be a floating currency- that is simply a fact

        • Plasma Dawn

          Whatever the Chinese do or don’t do is their own business. If the Chinese goods addicts do not like it, let them not purchase anything from China. Instead, just like real drug addicts, they whine and whine and whine and then they keep on purchasing like there is no tomorrow.

          • Kevin Ingham

            It’s not their “own” business- the only possible solution to a perpetual trade imbalance is tariffs.

            China does not float it;s currency because it would harm it economically and politically and allow international markets and banks to dictate it’s economic policy (which is part and parcel of operating global economy)

            It would undermine it’s own centralised/state controlled version of capitalism which to be honest isn’t competitive enough to thrive under such circumstances

          • Plasma Dawn

            It seems that it is their own business after all because they refuse to float their currency and no one is doing anything about it except for whining. So whether it is their own damn business de jure or de facto, the end result is the same. Whatever they do, it seems to be working for them. As for the rest of the world, if they aren’t happy about it, they surely do not seem inclined to back it with any concrete actions.

          • Kevin Ingham

            Glad you think they are doing well and it’s working for them – I hope when their economic system becomes the global norm and you or your kids get volunteered to be a living organ donor you are still singing their praises

          • Plasma Dawn

            Where exactly did I say I was agreeing with China or singing their praises? As for it working for them, you’d have to be deaf and blind or living in a parallel reality not to recognize that it was working for them. And what’s that nonsense about getting volunteered to be a living organ donor? I will not address that inanity.

        • NuffSaid

          Once again, the West was happy to trade with a China whose renminbi has been grossly undervalued. There is no point in crying foul. You may disagree as do I with china’s Policy but it has suited the west, particularly the uk who has been desperate to trade the renminbi through the City of London.

    • HighTide

      The Euro was only destructive to countries that cannot efficiently run their economy. Greece and Cyprus in particular were spending money they did not have as if there was no tomorrow. Italy is doing the same thing. All of them cannot afford to leave the Euro zone since their debt would kill them completely. The only remedy is to learn how to responsibly run a country.

      • Kevin Ingham

        but if every European country became as efficient as Germany, Germany would not be successful

        There is not enough money in the world to absorb 600 million people producing the same as the Germans do

        • HighTide

          Nothing to do with the Euro. Germany was export champion with the Deutschmark too. There is the possibility for diversification for every country, that was also the case prior to the event of the common currency. Italy’s governments,that changed every 8 months during the past half century, did not properly handle their budget with the Lira either. There is something like a southern disease.