Boris Johnson has confirmed he is considering new steel tariffs despite concerns the move could break international rules, putting him on course for another major row with the EU.
The prime minister is reportedly drawing up plans to slap “safeguard” limits of steel imports from several developing countries, and extend existing tariffs already imposed on China and others.
But critics have warned the move to widen tariffs will “violate” World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules, with the EU ambassador to Britain warning against any “protectionism”.
Lord Geidt, the PM’s ex-ethics adviser, cited steel tariff plans in his resignation letter earlier this month – saying he had been put in the “odious position” of being asked to license a breach of the rules.
Mr Johnson said on Sunday he wanted UK steel to enjoy the “same protections” other EU steel economies have – arguing that the industry was going through a hard time due to energy prices.
“I think it is reasonable for UK steel to have the same protections that other European, absolutely every other European steel economy does,” he told reporters at the G7 summit in Germany.
The PM added: “The difficulty is, is that possible to do while staying within our WTO, our World Trade Organisation obligations? That’s the problem. But these are tough choices that you have to make.”
Mr Johnson’s government proposed on Thursday to extend for a further two years an existing package of tariffs, and quotas on five steel products to protect domestic steelmakers.
However, the Sunday Telegraph said wider measures were being finalised for announcement in the coming week. No 10 is preparing to hit several developing countries with new “safeguard” import limits, according to the newspaper.
A government figure opposed to the widening of tariffs said it would “screw the economy” and was “anti-Conservative”, adding: “It is a total violation of the WTO rules.”
But Mr Johnson insisted that Britain should not have to remove tariffs without other European countries doing it too. “I don’t think that’s the right way forward. I want another solution.”
Asked about the plans, the UK ambassador to the EU Joao Vale de Almeida warned that Brussels would be “very tough” on any breach of trade rules.
“I don’t think protectionism is the solution to any of our problems,” he told Sky News on Sunday. “Our course we need to be attentive to the rules of the game. When we find this kind of non-compliance, we are very tough, as needs be.”
The plan to override parts of the protocol, agreed by Mr Johnson as part of the Brexit withdrawal deal, sparked outrage in Brussels and raised fears of a trade war if the EU decides to take retaliatory action on tariffs and other controls.