BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union sought Asian support for free trade, the Iran nuclear deal and fighting global warming at a regional summit on Thursday that included China, Japan and Russia as a counterbalance to a more protectionist United States.
Leaders from the EU, Switzerland and Norway welcomed 21 Asian counterparts including Chinese Premier Li Keqiang after an EU summit dominated by negotiations over Britain’s planned departure from the world’s biggest trading bloc.
The 51 gathered leaders were set to show “strong support” for the World Trade Organisation that U.S. President Donald Trump had threatened to quit, and express “profound alarm” about climate change, according to a draft communique seen by Reuters.
When asked if the gathering was anti-Trump, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said “we don’t organise meetings against anyone”, but Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah said the U.S. president’s trade tariffs had united EU and Asia.
“Of course there’s more reason for why we should come closer together. We are working together to help each other for free and fair trade,” she told reporters when asked about Trump.
The EU and Asia will also discuss the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, Mogherini said. Myanmar’s minister for international cooperation, Kyaw Tin, was attending the gathering.
On Friday, the EU and Asian leaders - who represent 55 percent of global trade - will underline “their joint commitment to open, free and non-discriminatory trade” and “to fight all forms of protectionism”, according to the draft communique.
Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg told an Asia-Europe business forum before the summit that trade had pulled millions of people out of absolute poverty, but that countries could not ignore the environmental impact of trade and development.
Trump says the United States is treated badly in global trade and has blamed the WTO for allowing that to happen. Separately, the United States and China have imposed billions of dollars of tariffs on each other’s goods while Trump has also complained about an unfair EU trade surplus with Washington.
Norway and the EU asked the WTO on Thursday to set up a dispute resolution panel to address U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminium, Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Soereide said.
“We believe that additional U.S. duty on steel and aluminium is contrary to WTO rules,” she told Norwegian news agency NTB.
On Friday, the EU will also sign a free-trade deal with Singapore. The bloc has also reached a free-trade agreement with Vietnam. Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc told the business forum that he hoped the deal could be ready to enter into force next year.
However, the EU is trying not to side with China against the United States. On Tuesday, EU trade chief Cecilia Malmstrom held talks with U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in Brussels on improving trade relations, though Washington accused the bloc of moving too slowly in negotiations.
The EU-Asia summit meeting will also press Beijing to combat what Europe says is China’s harmful overproduction of steel, and the final statement is set to say that leaders agreed to tackle “excess capacity in industrial sectors”, according to the draft, which could still be modified by diplomats.
China, which produces and consumes half the world’s steel, has cut some 220 million tonnes of capacity since January 2016. But the EU remains intent on pressuring China to cut more, as well as to remove subsidies - a policy that the West says is aimed at dominating global markets.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was due to discuss subsidies with Li at a lunch on Friday, diplomats said.
Bolstering the nuclear deal with Iran signed by global powers in 2015, and from which Trump withdrew the United States in May, is also another priority of the summit.
Leaders will call on North Korea to “completely, verifiably and irreversibly dismantle all its nuclear and weapons of mass destruction”, according to the draft final statement.
Leaders will re-commit to the 2015 Paris climate pact that also Trump pulled out of, pledging to develop more clean energy.
Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Mark Heinrich