By Tim Hepher, Philip Blenkinsop and David Shepardson
LONDON/BRUSSELS/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States won approval on Wednesday to slap import tariffs on $7.5 billion worth of European goods over illegal EU subsidies handed to Airbus, threatening to trigger a tit-for-tat transatlantic trade war as the global economy falters.
The decision by the World Trade Organization pushes a 15-year corporate dispute over illegal support for plane giants to the center of caustic world trade relations and comes on top of a tariff war between Washington and Beijing.
WTO arbitrators said U.S. planemaker Boeing (N:) had lost the equivalent to $7.5 billion a year in sales and disruption to deliveries of some of its largest aircraft because of cheap European government loans to arch-rival Airbus (PA:).
The decision, confirming a figure reported by Reuters last week, allows Washington to target the same value of EU goods, but bars any retaliation against European financial services.
It is part of a two-way dispute that diplomats and trade experts expect to lead to tit-for-tat European import tariffs against U.S. goods next year over state subsidies for Boeing.
In a sign that Washington plans to fast-track its measures, people familiar with the case said the Trump administration had asked the WTO for an emergency meeting to give the formal ratification needed for tariffs in mid-October.
U.S. trade officials were also expected to unveil later on Wednesday a keenly awaited final list of European goods to be hit, after initially floating $25 billion of targets from planes to helicopters, wine, cheese, spirits and luxury goods.
Broad selling amid worries over slowing global growth that had punished European stocks earlier on Wednesday accelerated as the ruling revived worries about damage to the already-ailing regional economy. The pan European STOXX 600 index () was down 2.5%, on track for its worst day since December 2018.
Airbus shares closed down 2%.
The European Commission said U.S. sanctions would be “short-sighted and counterproductive”.
There was no immediate comment from U.S. officials.
WAR OF ATTRITION
The world’s two largest planemakers have waged a war of attrition over subsidies at the WTO since 2004 in a dispute that has tested the trade policeman’s influence and is expected to set the tone for competition from would-be rivals from China.
The WTO had already found that both Europe’s Airbus and its U.S. rival Boeing received billions of dollars of illegal subsidies in the world’s largest corporate trade dispute.
The global trade body is due to decide early next year on the level of annual tariffs the EU can impose on U.S. imports.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the decision would weigh on the European planemaker, which is one of Germany’s largest industrial employers and is headquartered in France.
Before any tariffs can be imposed, the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Body must formally adopt the arbiters’ report in a process expected to take between 10 days and 4 weeks.
Its next scheduled meeting is on Oct. 28, but Washington’s request could bring that forward to Oct. 14.
Both the United States and Europe say they have abandoned subsidies for the planemakers and accuse the other side of refusing to negotiate. The WTO has agreed to listen to fresh EU arguments about its compliance with trade rules but it rejected a request to suspend any tariffs while this was ironed out.
‘LOSE-LOSE’ TRADE WAR
On Tuesday, the head of one of Boeing’s biggest customers, Irish budget airlines group Ryanair (I:), urged the two sides to pull back from the brink of a tariff war and said neither side’s aviation industry would survive a long dispute.
While the level of tariffs amounts to less than three days worth of trade between Europe and the United States, importers led by U.S. airlines that buy Airbus jets have urged Washington to be selective when choosing industries to hit in order to avoid causing collateral damage to the U.S. economy.
EU manufacturers are already facing U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum and a threat from U.S. President Donald Trump to penalize EU cars and car parts. The EU has in turn retaliated.
The Trump administration believes tariffs were effective in bringing China to the negotiating table over trade, and in convincing Japan to open its agricultural market to U.S. products. Washington is unlikely to skip the opportunity to implement tariffs over aircraft subsidies, according to current and former U.S. officials.
Airbus has said this would lead to a “lose-lose” trade war and has published a video stressing its contribution to the U.S. industry through local assembly plants and 4,000 direct jobs, headlined “Together, let’s keep American aerospace great”.
Not all analysts see the WTO’s aircraft subsidy row – with its thousands of pages of legal and aeronautical jargon – inflaming broader international trade tensions.
“In some ways it is a distinct issue from the rest of the Trump trade wars,” said Constantine Fraser of UK research firm TS Lombard.
“I think the White House is going to be aggressive in pursuing this, but I don’t think there is necessarily any kind of read-through from this to the prospect of tariffs on cars.”