‘Bombardier exposes post-Brexit realities’ was the FT’s headline after the Trump administration imposed a 300 per cent tariff on sales of the Canadian manufacturer’s C Series aircraft into the US, threatening 4,000 Bombardier jobs in Northern Ireland. Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar weighed in: ‘There’s been a lot of talk of a new trade deal between the UK and the US and how great that would be for the UK, but we are now talking about the possibility of a trade war.’ The truth of this story, however, is that it tells us little about prospects for the future US-UK trade accord occasionally mentioned in the US President’s tweets — other than, perhaps, that he will never agree anything that doesn’t visibly put ‘America first’ and doesn’t give a hoot whether what he says today is consistent with what he tweeted three months ago.
The UK interest in the Bombardier dispute is, in that sense, largely a matter of collateral damage in continuing tensions on two fronts. First between the US and Canada in a range of sectors, despite the long-standing ‘free trade deal’ which is often quoted as a model for the UK to follow; and secondly between world-leading aircraft makers, led by Boeing in the US, Bombardier, Airbus and Embraer of Brazil. In this instance, the US giant objected to the Canadian’s ‘predatory’ pricing of planes sold to Delta Air Lines, despite having slashed its own prices to persuade United Airlines to buy at home rather than north of the border. These are standard tactics for aircraft manufacturers, along with accusing each other of being unfairly state-aided — which they generally all are. And in any such clash of global industrial gladiators, the stand-alone UK, as a component supplier with a shrunken manufacturing base, is at risk of being left looking like a powerless minor player.