PARIS — On the day after President Trump announced potential new tariffs on steel and aluminum, Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, announced potential consequences.
If Trump goes ahead with the tariffs, Juncker said, the European Union will respond by imposing tariffs on a number of American products that included Harley-Davidson motorcycles, Kentucky bourbon and Levi’s blue jeans.
“We can also do stupid,” Juncker said, speaking on German television. “We also have to be this stupid.”
The list hit both prime examples of classic Americana and products manufactured in the home states of key Republican leaders, such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.).
“Those were just examples,” said a European official speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing negotiations. “The list has been in preparation for some time, and of course more products are potentially to be targeted. Basically, it’s more or less one-third agricultural products, one-third steel- and aluminum-related products, and one-third other products.”
Analysts said these particular products nevertheless serve a politically expedient purpose.
“It’s clear that what the E.U. at this stage wants to do is to hit politically sensitive areas and districts in the U.S. in the hopes that those districts, which have an interest in trading with the E.U., would then weigh on the decision in Washington,” said André Sapir, an economist and former economic adviser to the E.U.’s director general for economic and financial affairs.
“It’s to try and change the course of the decision, which has not yet been taken.”
In recent years, Europe has proved to be a profitable market for some of the potential brands that the E.U. could end up targeting in the event of a trade war.
Harley-Davidson, for instance, turned to Europe to debut certain models, such as the 1200CX Roadster. Company officials said at the time of the 2016 launch that the new model’s design was optimal for more challenging European driving conditions.
Europe has also been good to Levi’s in recent years, as the brand — along with other denim purveyors — struggled to compete in an age of “athleisure.” Despite some industry predictions, Levi’s has thrived, with a significant increase in sales throughout fiscal year 2017. Growth in different geographic markets was key to that success, and in Europe specifically, that growth was pronounced.
Levi’s European sales rose by 20 percent in 2017, according to Bloomberg.
Sapir drew the parallel to the Bush administration attempting to impose steel tariffs in 2002 — tariffs that the World Trade Organization ultimately deemed illegal in a 2003 ruling. The E.U. also threatened at the time to retaliate with $2.2 billion in tariffs of its own on American products.
Back then, the choices carried a clear political message. Harley-Davidson was on the list. So were Michigan-manufactured cars and fruit harvested in Florida, where then-President George W. Bush’s brother, Jeb Bush, was governor.
In 2002, Romano Prodi, then the president of the European Commission, told the American journalist Joe Klein in an interview that Bush approached him at a summit with a question. “Why are you attacking my family?” Bush asked.
The Bush administration ultimately withdrew its tariff plan in December 2003.
“Whether Trump would do the same thing is a question mark,” Sapir said. “That remains to be seen.”