Clearly stung by the reports (here and here)of the devastating effect of protectionist EU tariffs on tsunami-affected countries,Peter Mandelson, our trade commissioner, has rushed out a statement telling us that the EU is “actively considering” ways to use EU trade policy to provide relief for affected regions and businesses.
Says Mandelson, "I want to find ways to assist people and businesses hit by the tsunami. The localised nature of the damage poses real challenges in ensuring that relief hits the target, but there are trade measures we can use to assist rebuilding in the countries affected by the disaster, notably by speeding up measures to improve their access to our markets."
Reading the small print of the statement, however – always a good idea with commission documents – this activity is ringed with caveats.
One finds that the immediate action consists only of "working to identify businesses that are affected by EU trade defence measures" – as if the commission did not already know – which "could be reviewed" with the "possibility of suspending them".
We then find that the commission will only "consider" ways of "re-orienting its trade related assistance" to affected countries but, "in the medium term" all this amounts to is the commission stating that it will "consider ways to fast-track the adoption and implementation of its new Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) scheme".
Then, in a nasty little aside, which is the ultimate get-out, the statement adds, "Whilst the EU cannot make tariff concession for individual countries without contravening WTO rules, the European Commission is ready to support WTO-wide initiatives to agree on tariff concessions for the affected countries."
Of course the EU can remove tariffs globally without contravening WTO rules, and it can also make regional agreements, but it is not about to, so the WTO reference is a sign that the EU is stalling. What Mandelson is offering does not add up to a row of beans.
What is illuminating though is the Independent's report of the statement
"EU set to reduce trade tariffs to aid rebuilding", the newspaper reports, with Stephen Castle, its Brussels correspondent declaring that "special EU trade concessions worth tens of millions of euros may be given to countries struck by the tsunami in a matter of weeks."
Peter Mandelson, Castle adds, "wants to rush through a reduction in tariffs affecting four Asian countries. The measure is due to come into effect in July, but could now be speeded up by several months."
What we know, of course, is that the cumulative effect of the tariffs amounts to not tens of millions of euros, but hundreds, so even by the Independent’s measure, the commission is only playing at the margins.
Nevertheless, the Independent makes for an unusual reversal. Instead of the trade commissioner doing his own spinning, the paper is spinning for Mandelson.