Canada will need to either bend or break international trade rules to take quick retaliatory action should the United States slap hefty tariffs on Canadian-made steel and aluminum, but experts say Ottawa has been forced into this position by an exceptionally protectionist White House.
Canadians should expect to pay more for iconic U.S.-produced goods if a trade war breaks out. Ottawa could slap import charges on goods from California wine to Vermont maple syrup – the sort of items that Canada has targeted in previous trade conflicts with Washington.
Canada has not released any lists of products – and the Trudeau government is staying mum on possible retaliation while it continues to seek an exemption from the Trump action. But experts suggest looking back at past trade spats with the United States – such as a 2014 dispute over meat labelling – to see what Canada has been prepared to hit.
Canada will be in good company in this trade fight, however, because more than 20 other countries or trading blocs will be taking similar countermeasures.
The European Union has already outlined a list of U.S. exports it would target after President Donald Trump said he will levy a tax of 25 per cent on imported steel and 10 per cent on aluminum.
Normally, Canada is supposed to seek retaliatory authority from the World Trade Organization to impose countermeasures on foreign countries but this process can take years. But, unlike past quarrels with the United States, Canada will be hard-pressed to act immediately – regardless of what the rules say.
"I don't believe any countries affected by these tariffs will wait for WTO procedures to be completed before acting," international trade lawyer Lawrence Herman said.
"Politics will drive this. Governments, including Canada, will be forced to respond immediately. That's the dangerous precipice we're facing, thanks to Mr. Trump."
Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat, writing in The Globe and Mail, says Canada and other countries threatened by the Trump tariffs should be drawing up a common list of U.S. exports that they could target with retaliatory action.
The EU has already warned it plans to target key Republican leaders with import taxes on items such as Kentucky bourbon – a product from the home state of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – as well as cranberries and dairy products from Wisconsin, home to House Speaker Paul Ryan.
Mr. Trump threw cold water on hopes for a Canadian exemption this week when he warned Canada would not be spared unless it agrees to U.S. demands for changes to the North American free-trade agreement – a series of protectionist U.S. requests that both Ottawa and Mexico City have characterized as unreasonable.
He said Tuesday that the tariffs will be applied in a "loving way."
Mr. Ryan, the most powerful member of the U.S. House of Representatives, said the proposed tariffs are too broad and open the country to possible retaliation. Mr. Ryan named China, rather than Canada, as a problem.
The steel tariffs will be raised Wednesday at a meeting between auto industry leaders and officials in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's office, said Jerry Dias, president of Unifor, who will attend the meeting.
Auto industry executives sought the meeting to urge Mr. Trudeau to halt Canada's participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which will eliminate Canada's 6.1 per cent tariff on vehicles imported from Japan.
One U.S. trade expert estimates the annual cost to Canada of the steel and aluminum tariffs could be US$3.2-billion. Chad Bown, a trade adviser to former president Barack Obama, wrote in an article for the Peterson Insitute for International Economics that this amount would be roughly what Canada could justifiably expect to seek compensation for in retaliatory action against the United States.
Former Canadian government officials have said it's very difficult to pick retaliatory targets. In 2005, when Canada was angry at a U.S. law that funnelled cash collected from tariffs on foreign goods to U.S. companies, Ottawa drew up a list that targeted the states where U.S. politicians voted for the legislation. In that case, Ottawa was forced to abandon some retaliatory targets – such as U.S. motorboats – because of push-back from Canadian industry. Its final list was narrowed down to a few items, such as tropical fish.
Laura Dawson, director of the Canada Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, said Canada's best bet to head off the tariffs may be to wait for the U.S. system of checks and balances to run its course, including a likely court challenge of steel tariffs by companies that buy steel.
"People are already talking about how court challenges will be launched, what would the courts be asked to adjudicate; would they be asked to adjudicate what constitutes a national security threat?" Ms. Dawson said.
With files from Reuters