Mexico eyes fresh U.S. targets for tariffs to pressure Trump over steel

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico’s government on Friday threatened to slap duties on new U.S. products in retaliation for the Trump administration’s steel and aluminum tariffs as it seeks to turn up pressure on Washington to exempt it from the measures.

FILE PHOTO: An employee stands by steel plates at Kalisch Steel factory in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, March 27, 2018. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez/File Photo

U.S. President Donald Trump set tariffs of 25 percent on imported steel and 10 percent on aluminum last June, prompting Mexico and other trade partners to hit back. Mexico has consistently argued that the tariffs only damage commerce within North America and should be withdrawn.

Mexican Deputy Economy Minister Luz Maria de la Mora told Reuters in an interview that if the U.S. government did not repeal the tariffs, her government would have a revamped list in its “carousel” of U.S. targets ready in about two months.

“We’re carrying out an evaluation and there are products from the agricultural sector - we’re probably going to bring in some new ones and take some others out - as well as in the industrial sector and the steel industry,” de la Mora said.

The value of the goods targeted under the list would remain equivalent to the impact of the Trump tariffs, de la Mora said, estimating the damage they caused at $2.7 billion.

Mexico’s previous government retaliated almost immediately against the metal tariffs, slapping measures on agricultural goods including pork legs, apples and cheese as well as various steel products.

Even if the value of the goods targeted by Mexico remained the same, swapping in new products could encourage more U.S. businesses to lobby Washington against the tariffs.

The new Mexican government of leftist President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador took office in December, and de la Mora said the country would continue to reject Trump’s measures.

“We should not fall into this protectionist trap,” said de la Mora, who brought years of experience working in international trade for the Mexican government to the post.

Noting that Trump had tried to use the metal tariffs as leverage during the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), de la Mora said now that since a new deal had been agreed last year, the argument was no longer valid.

“Mexico is not a national security threat for the United States,” she said. “This is really important; it really needs to be understood that Mexico is a partner, Mexico is an ally.”

Known as the United States-Mexico-Canada (USMCA), the new North American trade deal is still awaiting ratification by lawmakers in the three countries.

De la Mora said Mexico’s Congress would likely first pass a new labor bill designed to strengthen the rights of unionized workers, fulfilling a commitment made with the USMCA deal.

She expressed hope that law would be approved before the current session of Congress concludes on April 30. Lawmakers would likely move on to USMCA ratification during the following session due to begin in September, she added.

Uncertainty over Mexico’s access to the U.S. market has been a worry for business, while Lopez Obrador’s decision-making and attacks on the “neo-liberal” policies he said his predecessors pursued have also left some investors unimpressed.

Still, de la Mora said that after her meetings with investors at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, she believed levels of foreign direct investment (FDI) “very similar” to the past few years could be maintained in Mexico.

“All the companies indicated to me they have faith in Mexico,” she said.

Mexico’s full-year 2018 FDI totaled $31.6 billion, preliminary official data showed this week.

Reporting by Dave Graham and Adriana Barrera; editing by Frank Jack Daniel, James Dalgleish and G Crosse