EU says US car import threat 'difficult to understand'

President Donald Trump's administration has launched an investigation into the auto sector, which would provide the legal basis to impose tariffs on imports if a threat to US national security was found

A top EU official on Thursday expressed deep surprise at the fresh threat by the Donald Trump administration to hit European auto imports with tariffs as transatlantic trade tensions worsened.

"If now the US would unilaterally raise car tariffs for instance, it obviously would be against the WTO," said European Commission Vice President Jyrki Katainen, in reference to the World Trade Organization, the international arbiter on trade.

"It is very difficult to imagine (car imports) create any sort of threat to the national security so it is very difficult to understand," the former Finnish prime minister told a press conference in Brussels.

In an email to AFP, a commission spokesman said: "Invoking national security would be even more farfetched in the case of the car industry."

The response came after the US launched an investigation into the auto sector -- which would provide the legal basis to impose punishing tariffs on imports if a threat to US national security was found.

The shock move against the likes of Volkswagen or Mercedes came as a June 1 deadline approaches for the US to decide whether the EU wins an exemption from duties on steel and aluminium that are also based on alleged national security dangers.