President Donald Trump extended his threats of action against America’s trading partners, this time hinting at major retaliation against the European Union for what he described as its “very unfair” trade policy toward the U.S.
Mr. Trump has repeatedly complained about global trading arrangements that he says discriminate against the U.S. and has threatened steps that have fanned anxieties around the world about U.S. protectionism and the possibility it could set off a global trade war.
His comments about the EU come days after he imposed steep tariffs on imports of solar panels and washing machines, a move aimed mainly at curbing imports from Asia.
They were the first of what administration officials said would be a series of trade-enforcement actions in the coming months.
“I’ve had a lot of problems with European Union, and it may morph into something very big from that standpoint, from a trade standpoint,” Mr. Trump said in an interview with the U.K. broadcaster ITV, conducted on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and broadcast Sunday. The U.S. response would be “very much to their detriment,” he said of the EU.
“It’s a very unfair situation. We cannot get our product in. It’s very, very tough,” he said. “And yet they send their product to us—no taxes, very little taxes.”
The EU’s executive branch—the European Commission—didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Trump has frequently criticized multilateral trade agreements, and suggested he favored bilateral deals, while expressing concern about America’s trade deficits with other countries.
The U.S. runs a substantial trade deficit with the EU, importing over $93 billion more in goods and services than it exported to EU members in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Germany itself accounted for more than two-thirds of that.
The deficit with China stood at nearly $310 billion in 2016, with imports from Japan and Mexico also exceeding U.S. exports, by $57 billion and $63 billion, respectively.
Shortly before taking office, he called the EU a “vehicle for Germany.” After his trip to Europe in May, his first foreign visit as president, he also threatened action against Berlin.
“We have a MASSIVE trade deficit with Germany…. Very bad for U.S. This will change,” President Trump tweeted after meeting last year with EU and European leaders during a North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Brussels.
The EU has regularly warned that U.S. actions smack of protectionism and risk undermining international free trade. The U.S. and the EU are already locked in a number of disputes at the World Trade Organization, including over aircraft subsidies and poultry treatment.
Mr. Trump’s decision to impose levies on solar panels and washing machines drew ire from Brussels. European solar panels make up about 2% of all U.S. imports. An EU official said the bloc would review the measures and react “firmly and proportionately” if the measures significantly impacted European exports.
Mr. Trump has long promised to pursue a harder trade line in defense of U.S. manufacturers. On his first workday in office a year ago, he signed an order withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade agreement being negotiated by his predecessor, Barack Obama. The president, however, signaled a potentially major policy shift on Friday in Davos, saying the U.S. “would consider negotiating” a trade deal with TPP countries, individually or as a group. Mr. Trump also is renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement, a 1994 trade pact between the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
Difficult negotiations over an EU-U.S. deal, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, have ground to a halt after an October 2016 meeting, which was followed by Mr. Trump’s election and a busy election cycle in Europe. The EU’s trade chief, Cecilia Malmstrom, said days after Mr. Trump’s inauguration that talks are likely “firmly in the freezer at least for a while.” The parties have yet to reengage.
In the interview Sunday, Mr. Trump also criticized Britain’s approach to negotiating its exit from the EU, scheduled for March 2019, saying he “wouldn’t negotiate it the way it’s [being] negotiated.”
Mr. Trump said “I think I would have said that the European Union is not cracked up to what it’s supposed to be. And I would have taken a tougher stand in getting out.”
Mr. Trump, however, reiterated his commitment to striking a bilateral trade deal with the U.K. once its departure from the EU made that possible, saying the U.S. will be Britain’s “great trading partner.”
“We are going to make a deal with U.K. that’ll be great.”
Write to Wiktor Szary at Wiktor.Szary@wsj.com and Emre Peker at firstname.lastname@example.org