WASHINGTON — President Biden’s efforts to bolster domestic manufacturing are coming under diplomatic fire from key allies, with European governments accusing his administration of undercutting the trans-Atlantic alliance with “Made in America” policies that threaten their economies.
The objections center on policies included in the Inflation Reduction Act, which aims to make the United States less reliant on foreign suppliers by providing financial incentives to locate factories and produce goods in the United States, including electric vehicles. Mr. Biden has touted the law as key to creating “tens of thousands of good-paying jobs and clean energy manufacturing jobs, solar factories in the Midwest and the South, wind farms across the plains and off our shores, clean hydrogen projects and more — all across America, every part of America.”
But that has prompted cries of protectionism by foreign officials and accusations that the Biden administration is violating trade laws by giving preferential treatment to U.S.-based firms.
“We are having concerns that a number of the provisions are discriminatory against E.U. companies, which of course obviously is a problem for us,” Valdis Dombrovskis, the European Union’s commissioner for trade, told reporters in Washington on Thursday.
The disagreement represents the first major rift between the United States and Europe since Mr. Biden took office last year. The president, who promised to take a softer diplomatic touch than the Trump administration had with its “America First” agenda, has worked closely with European allies on a number of priorities, including punishing Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. In his first months in office, Mr. Biden quickly moved to repair relations with Europe, including by resolving a 17-year dispute over aviation subsidies.
But the unified front between the United States and Europe showed signs of strain during this week’s annual meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. European officials complained to the top ranks of the Biden administration that provisions in the expansive climate and energy law to support domestic production of electric vehicles violate international trade rules that require countries to treat foreign and domestic companies equally. They argued the provisions are unfair to their domestic car industries.
Mr. Dombrovskis said that he and other European officials would be directing their concerns to Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen, whose agency is responsible for implementing much of the law, along with Katherine Tai, the U. S. trade representative, and Gina Raimondo, the commerce secretary.
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In a meeting with Mr. Dombrovskis on Thursday, Ms. Tai “shared her view that seriously combating the climate crisis will require increased investments in clean energy technologies,” the Office of the United States Trade Representative said in a statement. Both Ms. Tai and Mr. Dombrovskis “asked their teams to increase engagement” on the issue.
European officials are discussing whether to contest the law, which was passed by Democrats along party lines, at the World Trade Organization, which could be time consuming and fruitless, or to formally raise the matter through the Trade and Technology Council that was formed last year.
The crux of the international fight centers on more than $50 billion in tax credits to entice Americans to buy electric vehicles. The law restricts the credit to vehicles that are assembled in North America. It also has strict requirements surrounding the components that go into powering electric vehicles, including batteries and the critical minerals that are used to make them. That is creating new incentives for battery makers to build recycling and production facilities in the United States.
Foreign companies that manufacture cars and car parts in the United States can also qualify for the credit. But some foreign carmakers, particularly those from Asia, tend to import more components for electric vehicles from outside the United States, meaning that fewer of their models qualify.
That has sparked accusations that the terms of the law were written to benefit U.S. companies like General Motors or Ford, rather than foreign companies like Toyota and Honda, even though many foreign companies have invested heavily in the United States.
“We understand that some trading partners have concerns with how the EV tax credit provisions in the law will operate in practice with respect to their producers,” said Eduardo Maia Silva, a spokesman for the National Security Council. “We are committed to working with our partners to better understand their concerns and keep open channels of engagement on these issues.”
European officials are concerned that the U.S. law will drive a wedge between European companies and their home countries if carmakers such as Porsche are under pressure to set up shop in the United States instead of opening more factories in Germany. Since the law went into effect, Honda, Toyota and LG Energy Solutions of South Korea have all announced major battery investments in the United States.
A previous version of the bill would have offered the tax credit to only U.S.-produced vehicles. But Canada and Mexico both lobbied against that draft version, and the measure was ultimately expanded to apply to vehicles produced throughout North America.
Asian allies have also expressed concerns about the law.
When Vice President Kamala Harris met with South Korean leaders in Tokyo and Seoul last month, the allies did not hesitate to express their frustration.
Hours before Ms. Harris attended the funeral of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, Korean officials, including Prime Minister Han Duck-soo expressed their concerns about the legislation to the vice president in a closed-door meeting.
The Japanese government has also expressed concerns.
Frank Aum, a senior expert on Northeast Asia at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said the tax credit was a “direct harm” to South Korean companies like Hyundai and Kia that wouldn’t get the benefit of the tax credit.
“South Korea is feeling very much betrayed because of the investments that they have made in the electric vehicle battery and semiconductor industries in the U.S. over the last couple years,” he said.
Just months before he signed it into law, Mr. Biden stood with the chairman of Hyundai in Seoul to celebrate the South Korean company’s investment in a new electric vehicle and battery manufacturing facility in Savannah, Ga. In meetings with Mr. Han and later with President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea in Seoul, Ms. Harris said she would consult with South Korea as the law is implemented.
The Biden administration has downplayed the tensions, saying that it is relying on its strong relationships with other governments to talk through those differences and fight the bigger battle of climate change.
In an Oct. 7 speech at the Roosevelt Institute, a Washington think tank, Ms. Tai called out the European Union’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism — a proposal that would encourage cleaner manufacturing by levying a tax on imported goods based on how many greenhouse gasses their production emits — saying that those European measure could also cause tensions with allies. But the United States and Europe should work through those differences to combat climate change together, she added.
“As we seek to reduce our carbon footprints and benefit our industries, we’re each going to do things that cause anxiety, whether it’s the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism or the Inflation Reduction Act. But this also creates an opportunity for us to work together, to tackle this existential crisis that threatens all of us,” Ms. Tai said.
Still, trade experts have warned that the U.S. efforts could potentially kick off a similar wave of protectionist measures to match those adopted by the United States.
Bruno Le Maire, France’s finance minister, said last month that the European Union should consider adopting electric vehicle bonuses for cars that are produced within the E.U. and meet rigorous environmental standards.
In that event, America’s policies could backfire in the long run, if American cars or components face similar barriers to being sold in Europe or Asia, said Chad P. Bown, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
“I think the risk on the U.S. side is that if we don’t address some of their major concerns, that they’ll ultimately do the same thing,” he said.
Wally Adeyemo, the deputy Treasury secretary, said at an event this week that he hopes that eventually U.S. allies will benefit from America’s investment in its production of goods such as critical minerals because it will also solidify their supply chains.
A Treasury Department spokeswoman declined to comment on how Ms. Yellen responded to the complaints of her European counterparts this week. In remarks at her closing news conference on Friday, Ms. Yellen touted the ambitions of the Inflation Reduction Act without acknowledging the concerns in Europe and Asia.
“It’s our nation’s most aggressive domestic action on climate,” Ms. Yellen said. “And it puts us on a strong path to meet our emissions reduction goals.”