Given Trump’s mercurial nature, it is not yet clear that this rapprochement will last. But there is reason for cautious optimism. The Trump administration has expressed openness to lifting its recent tariff hikes on imported European steel and aluminum, and this small gesture appears to have yielded dividends. Juncker, for his part, is characterizing Trump’s decision to hold off on imposing auto tariffs during trade negotiations as “a major concession,” as if to pave the way for European concessions. Indeed, they may have already begun. Earlier this month, in a little-noticed move, the European Commission approved imports of a widely used genetically modified soybean variety, a boon for U.S. farmers and grain traders who’ve long denounced Europe’s limits on GM food imports as protectionism in disguise. When Juncker spoke of increasing European purchases of U.S. soybeans, he was doing more than blowing smoke—the Commission had already laid the groundwork for doing so. If Europe does indeed import more U.S. soybeans, China’s retaliatory measures will prove that much less effective. Just when it seemed as though Trump had backed himself into a corner, a Luxembourgish Eurocrat has come to the rescue, strengthening his hand in his dealings with China, a revisionist power he rightly sees as America’s chief rival, and sparing red-state agriculturalists a punishing reversal of fortune. Of all the plot twists in the Trump presidency so far, this is among the more surprising.
Where does this unexpected turn of events leave free-trade Republicans? It leaves them divided. For those who see no principled distinction between trading with China and Europe, nothing has changed. Tariffs against Chinese imports are no less offensive to them than tariffs against European imports.