Donald Trump is threatening a trade war and the recent upturn in the world steel market won’t be enough to support our steel industry or its workers. The US President has acted because of concerns about cheap, subsidised steel but protectionism is not the answer and UK steel producers are not the cause for his concerns. He and we should be working together through the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to find answers to problems of global over supply.
Steel producers are rightly concerned about the double whammy they face as not only are exports to the US subject to these tariffs but more of this cheap, subsidised steel will make it’s way to the UK instead further undermining our capacity to compete on a level playing field.
The Conservatives repeatedly blocked EU attempts to defend the European steel industry against subsidised imports of steel from China in 2015, and lead the bloc of member states that prevented modernisation of trade defence measures. This veto by the UK government contributed to SSI closing their plant at Redcar at the cost of 1,700 jobs to the local community. The government have been clear that even once we’ve Brexited, they won’t modernise our trade defences, even if the EU reforms their own. Just a fortnight ago the Conservatives voted against the Modernisation of Trade Defence Instruments in the European Council, but this time failed to veto it as only the UK and Sweden voted against it.
In the Trade Bill Committee, in January this year, Labour tabled a series of amendments to strengthen the approach to trade remedies after we leave the EU. We argued that the new Trade Remedies Authority needed strong representation from manufacturing precisely because of our concerns about steel and other core industries such as ceramics. But the Conservatives voted down our attempts to ensure a robust trade remedies system for the UK.
The next Labour government will work with our partners in the EU and across the world to address oversupply of steel. We’d engage with the US government too, as Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State, Barry Gardiner did when he travelled to the US to argue the case of Bombardier against the attempt by Boeing to secure an unfair advantage. At the moment, the government’s ‘do nothing’ approach will leave a hefty price to be paid by British businesses, communities and workers. Without a collaborative approach to combating the dumping of steel onto the world market, the future is indeed bleak. We want the Conservatives to learn from our approach, to adopt a policy of combating the policies of Trump while working to combat the systemic problems in the world steel market.
These steel tariffs show that Liam Fox and Theresa May simply cannot rely on old alliances for a trade deal. We cannot hope that a common language or a so-called ‘special relationship’ will ensure our industries are protected from tariffs. We can and must do more to protect our industries.
The Conservatives are running up the white flag of surrender in the face of the reality TV star in the White House. Trump won an election off the back of telling contestants on his show ‘You’re Fired’, but he cannot be allowed to do the same to workers in Scunthorpe and Port Talbot.
We need a robust trade remedies policy, informed by evidence from producers and trade unions. The UK government must take multilateral action against dumping, and work through the WTO. And UK steel production must be at the heart of our industrial strategy, our trade strategy and our procurement strategy. We urge the Conservatives to act now, but if they don’t, the next Labour government will.
Bill Esterson is a shadow trade minister and Labour MP for Sefton Central