Cranberry Diplomacy

U.S. Rep. William Keating, who represents the Cape and Islands in Congress, recently scored a victory for cranberry growers across the state by facilitating a deal through which European nations will continue to purchase many of the state's small red fruit without implementing a retaliatory tariff.

European Union officials had threatened a blanket cranberry tariff as one measure in the wake of the Trump administration's decision to impose harsh economic measures on allied imports. Keating's efforts demonstrate how states may be able to wrest back a modicum of control of their economic futures from Washington, D.C., and deal with those most directly affected.

Earlier this year, President Trump announced a series of tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, prompting warnings of retaliatory measures. Keating's actions became necessary after the EU announced in March that it had drafted a list of products targeted for tariffs. Among those items were cranberry products, which represent one of the commonwealth's most prominent and valuable agricultural exports.

Not coincidentally, cranberries are also a popular commodity in Wisconsin, home state of House Speaker Paul Ryan, and there is some suspicion that the EU may have selected cranberries and other specific products to bring the tariff fight home to those most responsible for it. Unfortunately in this case, the tariff was also going to hit Massachusetts, the second largest producer of cranberries in the United States after Wisconsin. Cape Cod and southeastern Massachusetts growers were going to become collateral damage in the trade war.

For his part, Keating refused to sit idly by while his district, which includes some of the most productive bogs in the state, absorbed the hit. He actively engaged European officials – up to and including French President Emmanuel Macron – and pled his case that penalizing the cranberry industry would amount to, in his words, "collateral damage in this ridiculous trade war." He apparently found a few sympathetic ears, and managed to convince regulators to exclude approximately two-thirds of the cranberry products from the tariff list, including prepared and preserved cranberry products. The tariff will, unfortunately, still apply to cranberry juice.

Keating's willingness to step into the fray demonstrates local representation at its best, and his involvement does not represent a Johnny-come-lately approach. During his tenure as a representative, he has taken the time to understand the industry's merits and challenges, and has actively pursued solutions. Several years ago, when a glut of cranberries prompted fears that prices would tumble, Keating worked with growers to expand their international market share, specifically in Europe and other areas. It paid off handsomely for local growers: more than half of the Massachusetts cranberry crop ends up in Europe. And when it appeared that those hard-won gains were at risk, Keating stepped back up to the plate.

Without question, there remains a lot of work to be done. Although the majority of the state's cranberry products are temporarily exempt, the deal still leaves a third of them subject to the higher tariffs, and even the products for which Keating negotiated the removal will return to the list in three years if nothing changes. Given the current tenor of trade discussions in Washington, the growers could very well find themselves right back at the drawing board when those exemptions expire.

It remains to be seen just what will happen in the coming months and years in terms of international finances. It is difficult to guess what measures the president may yet impose, and the European Union has vowed to strike back at Trump's trade policies, just as China is doing now. The EU may find a sympathetic ear in the World Trade Organization, which could step into the dispute, further exacerbating the situation. But it is good to know that even amid a firestorm of international economic wrangling, Keating is keeping his eye squarely focused on the local picture.

Keating's efforts also demonstrate the importance of cultivating and nurturing international relationships in a world that is increasingly embracing isolationism.

(This article is by the Cape Cod Times. Read the full article by clicking here.)