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The Siren Song of Strategic Autonomy

A recent report by the European Commission’s in-house think tank has called for Europe to aim for more “strategic autonomy.” But what may seem like an innocuous goal could easily take an economic-nationalist turn, with serious implications for world trade and the global economy.

BRUSSELS – For over a year, US President Donald Trump’s protectionist war against China – and his broader use of import tariffs to advance geopolitical objectives – has been fueling anxiety about the future of world trade. But tariffs are only the tip of the iceberg of economic nationalism. If the world doesn’t navigate carefully, hidden hazards could sink the global trading system.

The United States has not found any followers in its aggressive use of tariffs. In developing countries, there is little pressure to implement similar measures, because so many firms manufacture globally, and even those that do not depend on global supply chains. And in developed economies, major sectors that struggled to cope with import competition in the past – such as the clothing and steel industries – have by now mostly adjusted, and no longer play an important role. This explains why US business leaders largely opposed Trump’s tariffs. It thus seems unlikely that the use of tariffs will spread beyond the US-China dispute.

Despite involving the world’s two largest economies, the tariff war seems to be petering out. Even the self-declared “tariff man” is starting to recognize the limits of this policy instrument. A growing body of evidence indicates that, contrary to most economists’ expectations, Chinese firms have increased their prices in line with tariffs, negating any benefit the US might reap from squeezing its suppliers.

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