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Trump’s French Trade Truce Only Puts Off the Battle

Lionel Laurent

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Who said Davos doesn’t make a difference? As world leaders, business executives and cheerleaders for the planet descended on the Swiss resort for the annual World Economic Forum, one diplomatic victory was being chalked up on the sidelines: A presidential truce between Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron over France’s plan to tax tech companies, which the U.S. says discriminates against its national champions.

After threats of retaliatory trade tariffs on both sides, Macron took to Twitter to declare a “great” discussion with Trump that would lead to a “good agreement” on de-escalation. Trump retweeted that assessment, responding in the affirmative with “excellent!” But it’s hard to see much worth celebrating yet.What this truce amounts to isn’t exactly clear, for one thing, and it’s certainly not being trumpeted in the way that Trump’s “beautiful monster” of a phase-one deal with China was last week. Avoiding an escalation of tariffs is obviously a good thing. But Trump has already leveled so many trade threats at France and the European Union — driven by hatred of the trade surpluses they run with the U.S. — that it’s hard to feel excited at the prospect of one less gun barrel. If Trump actually ends up retracting his specific threat to hit $2.4 billion of French products with tariffs, that still doesn’t automatically guarantee protection for Airbus aircraft or German cars.It’s also not clear what Macron has gifted Trump in order to get de-escalation onto the agenda. According to the Wall Street Journal, France may have simply offered to “pause” its tech tax until a worldwide solution is agreed upon by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development — where support from the U.S. is obviously crucial. That’s not as huge a climb down as it initially seems: Paris could feasibly suspend the collection of digital tax payments due in April without scrapping the principle or the structure of its tax, as my Bloomberg News colleagues write elsewhere. But it still looks like Trump’s threats have paid off on one level.If the original sin is that today’s tech giants — Google parent Alphabet Inc., Facebook Inc., Amazon.com Inc. — aren’t paying their fair share in tax, we seem to be veering a long way from absolution. Things would be different if Europe could set aside its differences and agree on the fundamental good that a digital tax across its 28 members (soon to be 27) would bring. Brussels estimates global tech firms pay an average tax rate of 9.5%, compared with 23.2% for bricks-and-mortar peers. But the EU is divided on the need to overhaul the data economy, with low-tax jurisdictions like Ireland and the Netherlands resisting a common levy on digital firms.The Trump administration has shown itself adept at exploiting these divisions. France’s move to go it alone with a digital tax was politically popular, but fiscally weak. It is only expected to bring in 500 million euros ($555 million) a year, a digital drop in the ocean of France’s approximately 80 billion-euro deficit. Despite being fundamentally righteous, it allowed Trump to poke the soft underbelly of European unity by training his tariff weapon on Paris — and confronted the Macron administration with the prospect of pain for key exporters. The U.S. trade deficit with France was $16.2 billion in 2018.The pressure is now on to get consensus among more than 135 countries in the OECD-led push for an agreement on how to tax digital profits. It’s a solution favored by the likes of Apple Inc.’s Tim Cook, which speaks to how companies prefer the predictability of global solutions over patchy national ones. But until such a solution is actually agreed, it will be hard to celebrate this latest Franco-American “truce.” It has allowed France and Europe to save face by avoiding the reality of a new trade confrontation with Trump as he fights for re-election. It has offered tech firms a way to save money. But it hasn’t really saved the world from the threat of more trade wars. Davos can’t achieve everything.

To contact the author of this story: Lionel Laurent at llaurent2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Melissa Pozsgay at mpozsgay@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.

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