Designing a US-EU Industrial and Trade Policy



Erik Brattberg, Frances Burwell, Jörn Fleck, Charles Lichfield, Zach Meyers, James Batchik, & Emma Nix | Atlantic Council

Washington and Brussels under the Joe Biden–Ursula von der Leyen presidencies have developed a strong working relationship on trade and industrial policy issues. However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; growing consciousness on both sides of the Atlantic of the risks of economic dependencies, especially for high-tech and green industries, on countries like China; and fears about maintaining their industrial competitiveness have also jolted the European Union (EU) and United States into adopting more proactive industrial policies.

Policymakers should take heed that their efforts on both sides of the Atlantic do not pose challenges for transatlantic cooperation. The US Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), as the most potent case, fueled a sense that the United States and the EU might become competitors rather than partners in the green transition. More recently, the EU’s anti-subsidy investigation into Chinese electric vehicles could bring collateral damage to US companies, like Tesla, that manufacture in China.

With the EU and United States still searching for solutions to improve their economic security and resilience, this raises a number of critical questions: What does a values-based industrial and trade policy look like? How should the United States and EU develop mechanisms to address policy differences, avoid or at least manage disputes, and craft real forms of cooperation? How can the United States and EU extend cooperation to other likeminded partners such as the Group of Seven (G7)?

Action will not doom cooperation. The French subsidy scheme on electric vehicles designed squarely with China in mind serves as a basis for a flexible subsidy design, that remains outwardly compatible with the World Trade Organization (WTO), but actually closely aligns with the US approach while not violating the EU’s own trade red lines.

Ahead of the upcoming summit between the United States and the EU in October, the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center launched a working group to examine these questions and propose potential solutions to strengthen and grow the transatlantic economy. The working group conducted interviews with current and former EU and US officials from various offices, agencies, and cabinets to understand attitudes in Washington and Brussels.



The view from Washington

The IRA was a key first step as the United States finds its footing on economic strategy in the Biden administration. The Biden team, as outlined by US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, wants to find a way “to build capacity, to build resilience, to build inclusiveness, at home and with partners abroad” that shapes US strategy on everything from green energy subsidies to critical raw materials.

So far, the US strategy has a number of competing aims: constraining the rise of China and its ability to compete with the United States, reindustrializing the United States to bring back jobs, and delivering the green transition. These competing goals influence how the United States views industrial policy and trade vis-à-vis Europe—and mean that transatlantic cooperation is not always the highest priority, and Europe’s interests are not always appreciated and understood by law- and policymakers.

The United States was surprised by how strongly US partners—not just Europe, but Japan, South Korea, and others—have reacted to the IRA. While some partners clearly signaled their concerns early and secured substantial concessions, the EU was initially slower to engage with the United States, especially with Congress before the IRA passed, and has not been able to obtain all of the same concessions offered to others, such as free trade agreement (FTA) partner countries.

The EU’s unilateral environment, social, and governance (ESG) and digital policymaking rules will adversely impact its trading partners including the United States. The United States is concerned that these initiatives could require significant changes to global supply chains. Many of these instruments would force American firms to change how they do business, even outside Europe, due to their extraterritorial effect. The initiatives equally pose concerns for third countries, introducing the risk that these countries will ultimately see China as easier to do business with than the West—as illustrated in the EU’s difficulties finalizing its proposed FTA with the Mercosur countries.

The United States and EU are not doomed to have disputes on every aspect of industrial policy. On issues such as semiconductors, the United States and EU have a transatlantic consensus fueled by a determination to diversify chip manufacturing away from Asia, and they have coordinated closely on their respective approaches to semiconductor subsidies. A key reason for this consensus is that the initiatives did not come as a surprise to either side. Furthermore, the EU and United States are in similar positions, with a declining share of global production and fears about the security of future chip supplies.

More broadly, the United States and EU are working through the question of who makes the rules in response to emerging international challenges. While the United States may be the more natural rule-maker of the two as the bigger economy, it has largely ceded its position to the EU, demonstrated by the EU’s leadership on topics such as digital policy and sustainability. Through the IRA, a broader conversation is playing out on how the transatlantic partners should create trade and industrial policy. The United States seems more prepared to leave behind current international norms and bypass WTO rules, while the EU is more protective of the existing legal frameworks for international trade.

The view from Brussels

Industrial policy as such is not the problem for Brussels. The EU was more comfortable with the CHIPS and Science Act (CHIPS Act) than the IRA, for example, because the CHIPS Act does not directly harm Europe’s economic strengths or actively constrain its ambitions. However, the EU views the IRA’s local content requirements as discriminatory and as directly targeting the EU’s ambitions for global leadership in green industries—having developed regulations and policies designed to foster green industries in Europe early.

US local content requirements do not distinguish between damage to China and collateral damage to partners without an FTA with the United States, such as the EU. The United States has shown a degree of flexibility and willingness to course correct to ease the EU’s concerns, including on commercial leasing and critical minerals content, but there is still frustration in the EU that the United States appears unwilling to offer Europe the same flexibility it has given to other countries. For example, the Biden administration agreed to a mini FTA with Japan without congressional approval, but as a result of domestic political concerns, is now unwilling to offer a similar type of deal with the EU, instead requiring a more substantial deal that will take longer for both sides to agree on and ratify.

The EU feels forced to respond to the IRA, but the form of response has split Europe, namely through loosening a restriction on member states’ state aid for green energy projects and reusing EU funds from other places to drive investment in sectors that could be impacted by the IRA. The EU cannot replicate the nature of the IRA’s generous subsidies (such as unlimited and automatic tax rebates for production activities) because the EU lacks the same fiscal muscle and the EU treaties generally prohibit the use of state subsidies, except in defined circumstances. These rules are essential to limiting competitive distortions and promoting a level playing field among EU member states. Loosening these requirements allows some member states with a large fiscal capacity (such as France and Germany) to grant subsidies, which other member states could not afford to do. But the alternative EU-level subsidies would effectively require richer member states to contribute to supporting industry in poorer member states, whether directly or through joint borrowing. Given countries’ existing stretched budgets, there is little enthusiasm for this approach. Other members have not had the visceral reaction to the IRA that larger EU economies have had, further limiting the appetite for action. Moreover, the EU’s views of the IRA have gradually become more relaxed as there is growing understanding that the bulk of the bill has to do with subsidies which are far less discriminatory than the EV tax credits.

More generally, however, and despite the positive noises being made in public, stakeholders in the EU are getting frustrated by the lack of progress on transatlantic industrial and trade initiatives such as the “green steel club,” the Critical Minerals Agreement, and the Trade and Technology Council. In private, many European leaders see the Biden administration as having adopted a similarly protectionist trade policy as the Trump administration, albeit with a less heavy focus on imposing unilateral tariffs and with far more cordial diplomatic relations.

A lack of progress in transatlantic discussions has not prevented unilateral EU policymaking from continuing. The EU has pressed ahead with its own instruments to incentivize trade and investment partners to better protect human rights and the environment and to ensure that the EU’s own high domestic standards do not undermine its international competitiveness. These instruments include the carbon border adjustment mechanism (CBAM); the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive; the deforestation initiative; and the EU’s efforts to secure more enforceable ESG rules in its trade deals with Mercosur countries. The European Commission has also just launched an investigation into Chinese subsidies for electric vehicles. Many of these instruments pose challenges for the United States, even if most will have a much larger potential impact on China.


The case for cooperation

There are three drivers that make cooperation and compromise necessary: the geopolitical imperative to enhance US and European resilience and counteract the growing threat from China; the need for transatlantic cooperation on climate change; and the desire to secure manufacturing jobs in Europe and the United States.

First, China remains the greatest long-term strategic threat to both sides of the Atlantic. China’s well-practiced model of copious and opaque state aid, its regulatory support for national champions, its global dominance in markets for critical raw materials, its willingness to weaponize trade dependencies, and its production capacity mean that it poses far more of an industrial threat to the EU and the United States than they do to each other. Both Europe and the United States also remain concerned by China’s growing technological capabilities, including in artificial intelligence. A trade or subsidy war between Europe and the United States would only serve Chinese interests by fragmenting Western markets and supply chains, making it harder for Western companies to counter the advantages enjoyed by certain Chinese firms such as their ability to achieve economies of scale.

Second, the persistent and growing threat of climate change serves as another simultaneous, perhaps conflicting, pressure that requires action now from all of the world’s largest economies. Industrial policy is climate policy and vice versa. A tit-for-tat US-EU trade dispute will not help deliver the green transition as quickly as a coordinated approach would. Conversely, a coordinated joint transatlantic approach to industrial policy, green tech, and carbon emissions could serve as an important catalyst to convince other major players around the world to follow suit.

Third, the IRA seems to be part of a broader trend in both the United States and the EU toward more proactive and dirigiste industrial policies to secure manufacturing jobs. In the near to medium term, the transatlantic partnership will be increasingly similar to the economic partnership model of the 1960s to 1980s where both sides were engaged in assertive industrial policies, including supporting national champions, and the United States was anxious about losing its technological leadership to Japan. However, there are new elements in the story. Policymakers must take into account sustainability targets, along with digital and technology policy and the green transition, and not just satisfy manufacturing goals. And China represents a far more profound geopolitical, economic, and technological threat than Japan did in the 1970s and 1980s.

Going forward, US industrial policymaking will also be as much if not more constrained by domestic politics, which will limit Washington’s ability to regulate industries or implement internationally agreed approaches in areas like climate change. Just as the passage of the IRA required money to support and assuage industry, labor unions, China hawks, and climate activists, the politically easiest way to shape industrial policy will be through the checkbook.

In Europe, industrial policy, subsidies, and state aid are similarly becoming more the norm than the exception, although the EU’s regulatory agenda also remains relentless. Continued extensions of the (originally temporary) loosening of state aid, first in response to the pandemic, then to Russia’s war in Ukraine, and now to the IRA, may prove to have strong staying power. The framework may be difficult politically to phase out again.

Different approaches to industrial and trade policy will continue to hamper the transatlantic partnership. The United States, while officially maintaining its commitment to the WTO and its reform, will likely continue to violate the WTO’s rules in pursuit of its industrial policy goals. The EU will try to at least plausibly comply with international trade rules and is reluctant to set rules that explicitly single out China (though it is prepared to use its traditional trade defense instruments against China, as it did recently in commencing its anti-subsidy investigation for Chinese-made electric vehicles). European officials expressed their frustration that the technical guidance from the US government for US firms on how to benefit from subsidies in the IRA, for example, continues to emphasize local content requirements and does little to quell lingering European frustrations. Several stakeholders told us that the US-EU Trade and Technology Council (TTC), which could function as a forum to resolve or mitigate these issues, remains mostly a talk shop and that many key EU-US discussions on trade and industrial still occur outside of this platform.

The clock on resolving a number of important EU-US disputes and charting a better course forward is ticking. US and EU policymakers must imminently resolve the steel and aluminum tariffs that have haunted US and EU trade negotiators since the Biden administration put the Donald Trump–era transatlantic trade war on ice. US and EU leaders have publicly committed to resolving the dispute by this fall’s summit which corresponds with the deadline for reaching an agreement before the suspended tariffs kick back in, but time is of the essence to make progress on this tricky issue. This will require creativity and compromise from both sides on CBAM given that the United States is unlikely to have a national emissions trading system in place anytime soon.

Finally, the 2024 elections impose a tight timeline on both the EU and United States to find a potential path toward stronger industrial and trade relations. The US presidential election remains top of mind for policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic. Europeans have a reasonable concern that if an isolationist mood returns to the White House, the United States will be even less willing to take Europe’s concerns and interests into account, which in turn will make the EU even more determined to pursue unilateral strategies to protect its interests in the name of “strategic autonomy.” As campaigning makes politics more partisan, even limited results are better than none, and they are needed sooner rather than later.

Europe will choose a new European Parliament and Commission college in 2024. While Ursula von der Leyen’s reappointment currently remains probable and would help maintain good US-EU relations, it is not guaranteed. Internal EU horseracing could incentivize lavish spending promises to support domestic industry. Political trends in European member states will also come into account. The upcoming Polish and Hungarian presidencies of the Council of the EU are likely to prove polarizing and controversial, adding an additional layer of difficulty to EU policymaking. A potential further shift to the populist right in Europe, following recent wins in Finland, Slovakia, and elsewhere, may also impact the EU agenda and challenge support for trade and climate action. Together, these trends mean the EU may soon find it more difficult to build consensus around policies that would strengthen the transatlantic relationship.


Areas of convergence

While differences remain on each side of the Atlantic in both motivations that inform actions and the actions themselves, there are still strong areas of convergence. The United States and the EU are increasingly aligned on their respective determination to combat deindustrialization and build local green industries.

For Europe, much of the focus is about maintaining its competitiveness and trying to get third countries to adopt the EU’s ESG standards, so that the EU’s high standards do not lead to firms moving their businesses offshore where standards are lower. The EU’s goal is to become a leader in green technologies of the future. In that vein, it is a good thing, many Europeans stressed to this working group, that the Americans are taking climate financing seriously, and this can offer opportunities for European firms such as new subsidies for scaling up production.

For the United States, the focus is on a foreign policy for a middle class: an idea that foreign policy must fit into a domestic lens—in this instance, job creation. Jake Sullivan made the most articulate case for this approach: The United States will prioritize its own industry, “unapologetically” even, as well as partnerships with like-minded partners. His reference to Europe in this effort is a recognition of the importance Europe plays to this fundamentally domestic strategy.

Merely agreeing on the need for industrial policy will not be enough. Uncoordinated industrial policy can undermine the effectiveness of said policies if two economies compete for global leadership of the same industries. But there is space for convergence when the aim of industrial policy is to de-risk from problematic third countries or to diversify supply chains, for example. Where both the United States and Europe start with a low base and neither is likely to quickly achieve global dominance, industrial policy can be treated as a positive-sum game.

Some EU member states are developing subsidy programs that, while smaller in scale, achieve a similar effect as US efforts while being more justifiable under international trade law. French President Emmanuel Macron, for example, recently announced changes to French subsidies for vehicles that qualify as “green.” The assessment of whether a vehicles is green would take into account factors like the emissions involved in transporting it from its place of manufacture and whether the production facilities were powered by coal or more climate-friendly sources of electricity. These changes are expected to exclude most electric vehicles made in China while still rewarding countries for greening their means of production. Such subsidy schemes illustrate that there is space for European and US subsidy programs to be better aligned without requiring the EU or United States to breach their red lines.

Europe and the United States are also increasingly speaking the same language on China. While country agnostic, the Commission’s Economic Security Strategy provides little doubt that the Commission wants to see the EU reduce its dependencies on China. Important to note, however, is that the Commission’s approach, led by the transatlanticist von den Leyen, is not necessarily adopted by all of its member states. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has stressed that de-risking is the responsibility of companies, not governments. Macron has also signaled the importance of Paris’s continued commercial relationship with Beijing. Even if the Commission’s latest proposals on Foreign Direct Investment screening and export controls on sensitive technologies require member state buy-in, a process that can be cumbersome with Berlin and other capitals being hesitant, it is clear that current EU and US approaches toward economic security are converging far more than they are diverging.

US policymakers should recognize the limits of Europe’s hawkishness on China, and see a partner that is, if not entirely in sync, moving closer to the US approach. At the same time, the United States has also aligned with Europe by emphasizing that its strategy is aimed at a few narrow strategic sectors, rather than trying to achieve a broader decoupling. Joint statements from the TTC, US-EU Dialogue on China, and the US-EU High-Level Consultations on the Indo-Pacific, for example, provide an example of communiqués written with China in mind and illustrating a degree of convergence.

Industrial policy is not a monolith, and certain areas will be harder to get agreement on. The attempt to resolve the oversupply of steel and aluminum, for example, will prove difficult without negative repercussions for US or European manufacturers. But cooperation in certain areas remains feasible. The clean energy investment dialogue, now folded into the TTC and created in response to the IRA, is proof that cooperation is possible. Other related issues like the CBAM or a proposed critical raw material club provide the opportunity for discussions to avoid competition or establish greater cooperation. The EU’s ESG initiatives, such as its forced labor law, which along with its stated focus on upholding human rights was also designed to keep certain Chinese products out of the EU market, was a welcome sign in Washington which has taken similar steps itself in recent years.



There are short- and long-term policies that decision-makers in Brussels and Washington can agree on. And there are both modest successes and moonshot opportunities possible for each side of the Atlantic.

With an upcoming EU-US summit, immediate action is needed, and policymakers should consider the following for October:

  • Find a creative solution to steel and aluminum tariffs: A return of transatlantic tariffs would be a political disaster for both the Biden administration and the von der Leyen Commission. Failure to resolve the issue, or develop a stopgap, would put further transatlantic trade and industrial policy on a much weaker footing politically. The EU has been hard pressed to accept Washington’s proposal to resolve the dispute by creating a global green steel club (with membership premised on countries agreeing to reduce their industries’ carbon intensities, to avoid overproduction and limit the role of state-owned enterprises). Brussels believed the proposal could breach WTO rules by imposing discriminatory tariffs against imports from countries that are not members of the club. The EU has already enacted a CBAM, which would levy tariffs on imports based on the carbon intensity of their production without overtly discriminating among countries, and which has pushed as the model for a transatlantic deal. But the EU does not believe it can give the United States its requested blanket exemption from CBAM without breaching WTO rules, and the parties have not found a way to comprehensively tackle problems like perceived overproduction. Despite these problems, news reports suggest there is convergence at least on the threat posed by Chinese steel and aluminum exports. The EU is poised to launch anti-subsidy investigations which could result in the EU imposing higher tariffs on China’s exports of these products to the EU – mirroring Washington’s approach. While this would not solve all the problems the EU and US had hoped, it would at least give the US a rationale for extending the suspension of tariffs on EU products, buying time for both sides to work on a more comprehensive approach.
  • Identify areas of industrial policy where US and EU subsidies will not be perceived as a zero-sum game and prioritize work in these areas: In line with their cooperative approach on semiconductor subsidies, the EU and United States could focus their industrial policies on other sectors where the biggest threat to their local industries is China rather than each other. This is true in electric vehicles: The EU is now starting to realize its industry is more threatened by Chinese vehicle exports to Europe than by constraints on Europe’s ability to export vehicles to the United States. But it is also true in other sectors, such as extraction of critical minerals, as noted in the communiqué from the last TTC. The EU and United States should focus on identifying and prioritizing other sectors where they both have a low share of global production and their ambitions are to reduce their reliance on China rather than dominate the global market at the expense of the other.
  • Establish a WTO-compliant club: Without a US-EU FTA and while WTO compliance is a first-order priority of the EU, the United States and EU should concentrate instead on a club model with a focus on coordinating subsidies and the use of trade defense instruments. Any club must stay within WTO rules, while still remaining beneficial for Washington and Brussels, avoiding active discrimination of third countries. For example, building on the clean energy incentives dialogue, the club could work on designing subsidies that are WTO-compliant while bringing EU and US policies into closer alignment on China. The club could take inspiration from recently announced changes to French electric vehicle subsidies, which take into account factors like China’s heavy reliance on coal for powering its manufacturing industry. The club could also coordinate on the use of trade defense instruments to ensure that the other jurisdiction’s businesses will not become unexpected collateral damage in any trade dispute with China. For instance, there are concerns that the EU’s current anti-subsidy investigation into Chinese electric vehicles could also result in tariffs against US carmakers that manufacture in China.
  • Take US concerns about the EU’s ESG agenda into account: The EU seems likely to slow down its barrage of ESG initiatives. French President Macron has called for a “regulatory break,” with a period focused on implementing existing rules rather than making new ones. The conservative European People’s Party has similarly proposed a pause on new initiatives. And the European commissioner responsible for many of these initiatives, Frans Timmermans, recently stepped down to return to national politics, with his successor, Maroš Šefčovič, promising more consultation with industry. The EU should take the opportunity to consult with the United States and third countries about how the EU’s recent ESG laws will be implemented, and the shape of potential future initiatives. This dialogue would have three benefits. First, it would help assuage American concerns that the EU’s agenda is inflexible and does not adequately take Washington’s concerns into account. Second, it could help ensure that EU initiatives do not create unnecessary barriers to a single transatlantic marketplace. Third, it could help the EU ensure that its initiatives better reflect the EU and United States’ joint ambition to foster closer economic ties with countries that China is trying to attract—rather than making the EU look like a difficult and demanding trading partner.
  • Commit to implementing the IRA without causing further harm to EU industries: EU policymakers should be clear-eyed that the EU will not receive a Japan-style mini FTA as it has become politically unfeasible. Instead, the Biden administration could commit to a “do-no-further-harm” policy in the implementation of the IRA, specifically through its technical requirements where some EU policymakers are concerned that the administration is taking an unnecessarily protectionist and “America first” approach when allocating IRA funding. The executive branch has significant discretion over how the IRA is interpreted and applied, so it is somewhat unconstrained by Congress. The United States must be clearer on things such as permitting and what “local content” means—does that translate to the whole supply chain needing to be included in the United States or just the final assembly? Another relevant issue is the role of hydrogen subsidies under the IRA. The US and the EU should coordinate closely on how to define clean hydrogen as this is a promising area of transatlantic cooperation as the US is considering doubling down on subsidies for hydrogen while the EU is already leading on the technology and know-how that is essential for deploying hydrogen.

Policymakers should also start working now on the longer-term issues that industrial policy will ultimately require:

  • Make the case for US-EU third-party engagement: Both the United States and EU need third countries. But for many countries, engagement with China is not just politically necessary, it is more attractive. Yet China’s largely condition-free investments—compared with ESG requirements, for example—still come with strings attached, catching countries in a debt spiral. China also frequently fails to deliver on its infrastructure investments, or those investments fail to deliver long-term economic benefits. The US-EU relationship has an opportunity to gain the advantage. US and EU policymakers should map out a joint initiative to promote an engagement strategy with other likeminded democracies, especially within the context of initiatives such as the G7 or Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and build on the success of projects including those in the TTC to sell the benefits of sustainable investments.
  • Double down on the TTC: Many of the irritants in the transatlantic relationship have come from the lack of a unified, collaborative approach, driven by the fact that the United States did not have a position on key issues that mattered to the EU (like tackling anti-competitive activity in tech), and so the EU therefore adopted its own unilateral approaches. The TTC is still important to help address this dynamic. It can help tease out where the United States has a position. Although it cannot solve US domestic political gridlock, it can therefore help the EU design its initiatives so that, if the United States is later able to move (like it has on climate), EU-US cooperation does not face unnecessary hurdles. Similarly, it can give the United States more predictability about the direction of travel for the EU. Dismissal of the TTC as a “talking shop” consequently seems unnecessarily negative: Many of the TTC’s successes will be from avoiding disputes before they arise. In particular, discussions on standards of emerging technologies such as AI and quantum, supply chain issues, and economic security are all promising areas where the TTC can make a distinctive contribution. Before the elections, Presidents Biden and von der Leyen should commit to continuing the TTC as central for transatlantic coordination on trade and tech issues while tasking a group of advisors to review the effectiveness of the format and put forward a set of ideas for how to enhance its effectiveness over the next four years such as streamlining the ten different working groups.

Erik Brattberg is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center.

Frances G. Burwell is a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council and a senior director at McLarty Associates.

Jörn Fleck serves as senior director with the Europe Center at the Atlantic Council with primary responsibility for the Center’s EU efforts, programming related to Western Europe, Brexit, and US-EU relations.

Charles Lichfield is the deputy director and C. Boyden Gray senior fellow of the Atlantic Council’s GeoEconomics Center.

Zach Meyers is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform (CER) where he works on EU competition policy, particularly in the digital sector.

James Batchik is an assistant director at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center, where he supports programming on the European Union, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Three Seas Initiative, and the center’s transatlantic digital and tech portfolio.

Emma Nix is a program assistant with the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center where she supports the Europe Center’s programming on the Three Seas Initiative and Central and Eastern Europe.

To read the full issue brief, click here.