WASHINGTON — The chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee urged the incoming administration to renew trade negotiations with the European Union, countering a pledge by President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. to postpone any new trade talks until after the United States has made significant domestic investments.
The statement on Friday, from Representative Richard E. Neal, Democrat of Massachusetts, raises the question of whether congressional pressure could persuade the Biden administration to take a more aggressive approach to trade negotiations with close allies.
Mr. Biden has downplayed expectations for new trade negotiations early in his term, saying he wants to first wrest control of the pandemic and make substantial investments in American industries like energy, biotech and artificial intelligence.
“I’m not going to enter any new trade agreement with anybody until we have made major investments here at home and in our workers,” Mr. Biden said in a New York Times interview last week.
But since congressional opposition would be one of the main obstacles to any new trade agreement, the support of key Democrats could be strong motivation for initiating talks.
In an interview, Mr. Neal suggested that reaching a trade agreement with the European Union would help deal with the rising economic threat from China, which has used hefty subsidies, state-owned companies and other practices to dominate industries and challenge the trade rules long embraced in the West.
Mr. Neal called Mr. Biden’s approach “fine and fair,” but argued that pursuing E.U. trade negotiations “is part of a foreign policy challenge as it relates to China’s expansionist activities.”
“I think that we should, right now, be preparing to match the aggressive nature of what China’s doing in the world,” he added.
Mr. Biden would need the support of Mr. Neal and others to cement such a deal. So-called trade promotion authority, a statute that sets out guidelines for the executive branch as it negotiates trade deals and streamlines the approval process, is set to expire in July; any deals submitted to Congress after that could face a more difficult path to ratification. It’s not yet clear whether the Biden administration will petition Congress to renew the authority.
Despite deep historic ties, the United States and Europe have not always had an easy trading relationship. The governments have argued for decades over tariffs, farm subsidies and food safety standards, and efforts to reach a comprehensive trade pact under both the Obama and Trump administrations were ultimately scrapped.
But Mr. Biden has often spoken of the importance of strengthening American alliances, and he and his advisers have been eager to remedy ties with Europe that have been strained by President Trump’s confrontational trade approach. They also see much common ground with the European Union on issues like climate change, labor standards and consumer protections, as well as countering China’s growing geopolitical power and trade practices.
Business & Economy
Dec. 11, 2020, 12:33 p.m. ET
Both governments appear eager to make progress on trade issues that have festered under the Trump administration, including spats over subsidies to the aircraft industry and plans by European countries to tax American technology giants.
Those discussions would be led by Mr. Biden’s trade representative, Katherine Tai, whom the president-elect plans to introduce Friday as his nominee for the post. Ms. Tai is on Mr. Neal’s staff as the Ways and Means Committee’s chief trade lawyer.
Mr. Neal declined to elaborate on conversations he’d had with Ms. Tai about pursuing trade deals with the European Union, but said, “I think we’re in broad agreement on the nature of the challenge.”
Mr. Neal pointed to the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement as a “blueprint” for new trade pacts. The accord, the successor to the North American Free Trade Agreement, was negotiated by Mr. Trump and revised by congressional Democrats, including Mr. Neal and Ms. Tai, before going into force this year.
“What we were able to do with U.S.M.C.A. in terms of environment, labor standards, enforcement — I think we have some momentum,” Mr. Neal said. He said he was continuing to work to drum up support for using a European trade deal to counter China’s influence around the globe.
In his statement on Friday, Mr. Neal said pursuing a trade deal with the Europe Union would be a “strategically sound choice” as the United States tried to compete economically with China and rebuild its economy from the pandemic recession.
He urged the Biden administration to engage with allies in Europe and elsewhere to “formulate a strategic, far-reaching, forward-looking, robust package of programs and investments to defend against anti-competitive, anti-democratic influences of China’s policies.”