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Coronavirus showed in 2020 spring that the European Union has considerable economic dependency on China:

Chinese manufacturers and suppliers have shut down factories and offices in an effort to contain the spread of the disease formally known as COVID-19, wreaking havoc on industries including the technology sector and pharmaceutical sector, which have intricate supply chains in the key global hub.

A few European officials recognized this dependency and consider that it should be reduced (example):

"There will be a 'before' and an 'after' the coronavirus [outbreak] in global economics," French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told radio station France Inter on Monday. "We have to decrease our dependence on a couple of large powers, in particular China, for the supply of certain products" and "strengthen our sovereignty in strategic value chains" like cars, aerospace and medicines.

I am wondering that if in the meantime, the European Union has managed to make at least some steps towards reducing this dependency. I am referring to areas that were not COVID related (e.g., producing masks, equipment for COVID treatment).

Question: Has the European Union taken any concrete steps towards reducing its economic dependency on China?

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TLDR, as examples:

  • the EU seems to envisage an "Airbus for batteries", down to the raw minerals being from EU production. State aid is obviously part of the equation. (Much more on this in the next "section".)

  • EU's API (active pharmaceutical ingredients) strategy in view of the lessons of Covid-19 is still being finalized, but there are some prior examples of EU "reshoring" in that field too, e.g.

Sandoz’s deal with the Austrian government to invest more than $175 million at its site in Kundl, Austria, Europe’s last large antibiotics plant. “This is really small change for a production site that supplies half of Europe with penicillin,” van den Hoven [at Medicines for Europe] says.


On batteries and their minerals...

Not sure how substantive this is, but there's a European Raw Materials Alliance that was launched this autumn:

As Europe emerges from the COVID-19 crisis, it must boost its “own domestic capacity for primary raw materials” as well as secondary materials obtained through recycling and re-use, Breton [EU’s internal market commissioner] said.

But opening new mines in Europe isn’t the whole solution, he added.

“It is not sufficient to have the raw materials if we do not have the processing facilities in Europe,” he warned, saying loopholes need to be closed across the raw materials value chain.

At the moment, Europe is heavily reliant imported raw materials from a small number of foreign countries. China provides 98% of the EU’s rare earth elements, while Turkey supplies 98% of the bloc’s borate and South Africa covers 71% of the EU’s needs for platinum.

“There are also many of these materials present in Europe. And that’s the good news,” he said, citing reserves of cobalt, bauxite, beryllium, bismuth, gallium, germanium, indium, niobium and borate.

The pressing question now is how fast Europeans can develop mining, refining and recycling capacities and how dependent it will be on imports while it does so.

In some cases, the Commission believes Europe can move swiftly. On lithium, for instance, Breton said the EU is positioning itself to be almost self-sufficient by 2025.

For rare earths, the process will be longer, officials told EURACTIV. The aim is to have European mining and refining capacity operational by the start of the next decade. In the meantime, that means ensuring “diversified and undistorted access to global markets for sustainably sourced raw materials,” Breton said.

There's not much analysis that I can find on its putative impact. E.g. Bloomberg / Reuters only quoted reactions from European sources like:

The commission initiative on Thursday was hailed by Eurometaux, a Brussels-based association that represents non-ferrous metals producers and recyclers in Europe.

“We are very enthusiastic that this is happening and we are very happy to work with the commission to make sure that this is a success,” Mikael Staffas, Eurometaux’s president and chief executive officer of Sweden-based Boliden AB, said in an interview.

But the plan seems linked to the already ongoing “European battery alliance” started in 2017, which is linked to the building of some battery "gigafactories" e.g. those of Northvolt in Sweden and Germany.

Supposedly, new EU regulations from December this year envisage something like "battery passports" which would trace down the components, down to minerals' origins:

This will include “something like battery passports that will ensure easy access to information about key parameters of batteries and their origin,” including the raw materials that went into the manufacturing process, [EU commissioner Maroš] Šefcovic said.

“We also want to make sure that we will be working with raw materials that are traceable and respect ecological, labour and other standards. This is important for European consumers.”

[...]

In April this year, a lithium mining project in the Czech Republic secured €29.1 million in funding and is expected to become the first EU producer of battery-grade lithium compounds. In July, global mining giant Rio Tinto announced a decision to invest nearly $200 million in a lithium-borate project in Serbia.

For rare earths, which are used in magnets founds in wind turbines and electric motors, it will be a longer shot. The EU is currently 100% dependent on imports but the Commission hopes the first European mines could open as soon as 2030.

“We also have rare earth reserves in Europe, which until now, have not been fully explored,” Šefčovič said. “This is why countries like France, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Greenland and Norway, are looking into it.”

To diversify supplies, Europe is also looking to the Western Balkans – notably, Serbia and Albania – as well as Ukraine, which “have very solid reserves of most of these critical raw materials,” Šefčovič added.

Note that a 2019 article in Politico was a lot less enthusiastic about EU's battery plans, with a headline like

Germany’s industrial plan signals Europe’s protectionist lurch

EU taking a leaf out of China’s book in seeking to build heavyweight champions

although most of the article talks about controversial proposals to relax EU's competition regulations to allow mega-mergers like Alstom-Siemens, which was blocked by the EU Commission last year.

But state aid is part of the equation for this new battery champion of the EU ("Airbus for batteries" in the commissioner's words):

Step one came late last year when seven countries led by France and Germany secured approval from Brussels to splash out €3.2 billion in state aid to build out Europe's stake in a battery technology market estimated to be worth an annual €250 billion by 2025. [...]

A second batch of state aid applications — billed as even bigger than the first — is being prepared to further ramp up Europe's battery plan.

[...] the EIB expects to set aside at least €1 billion a year in loans for battery projects within the 27-country bloc over the next four years, alongside the injection of public funds from the Commission and national capitals.

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Unlike the United States of America, the European Union cannot just easily rely on economic independence from China as Chinese Markets are beneficial for European Goods and Investments. Even if concrete steps were taken or Institution and Commissions are doing something, it's not going to be easy as the many EU States have different approaches towards China many might be even from East Europe as China is investing and pouring a lot of money into them to accomplish the Belt Road Initiative and is linking Chinese to European Markets. Even the current Brexit negotiations make difficulties for the European Union and Europe and England want an economic deal, so Brexit Negotiations aren't going to make things easy for European Independence and Autonomy towards China and States aren't sure what Brexit can cause to European Economy and EU strategic politics. So the EU has other problems to focus on too!!!

China is more and more seen as an economic rival and some Nations have started putting China on the discussion table.

In 2017 Greece – which joined the 16+1 framework in 2019 and which has received substantial Chinese investment – went so far as to block an EU statement on China’s human rights record at the United Nations. Of the 12 member states that have joined the framework, eight declared in ECFR’s survey that China was not part of their discussion of ESA. It is unclear whether these countries understand that China could pose a challenge to ESA or simply do not discuss the issue. Nonetheless, respondents in member states such as France and the UK indicated that China was part of their ESA discussions. In the UK’s case, this may be partly due to the sacking this year of defence secretary Gavin Williamson over a leaked plan for Chinese firm Huawei to help build the UK’s 5G network. Both France and the UK see China as a growing challenge to European security generally. Although Germany does not see China as part of its discussion of ESA – despite Huawei and 5G featuring in the German public debate – the European Commission has acknowledged European concerns about the issue. In its March 2019 report “EU–China – A strategic outlook”, the Commission referred to China as a “systemic rival”.

https://ecfr.eu/special/independence_play_europes_pursuit_of_strategic_autonomy/

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  • I'm not entirely sure what Brexit has to do with reducing the EU's economic dependence on China? Is there some vital import that in the absence of the UK within the EU single market will have to come from China instead? – Jontia Nov 30 '20 at 10:09
  • Frankly, you've almost turned the OP's question on its head with this answer. In OP's question dependency is defined as import-dependency. By your account however, the US depends on Saudi Arabia because it exports weapons to them in sizable amounts, i.e. "export-dependency". It's true that that fact gives the Saudi's political clout in the US, but that's not the sense in which the OP defines/understands the term, (I'm actually unhappy with the antagonistic framing, but at least I've tried to answer the OP's question.) – Fizz Dec 2 '20 at 8:12
  • Also the Huawei issue is being seriously overblown as the EU having some sort of dependency on China in this area. The EU Commission has insisted for example that Nokia and Erricson can provide the full 5G stack. The actual Huawei issue is a matter of not allowing them to participate in that core network market at all. – Fizz Dec 2 '20 at 8:16
  • Granted, countries like Germany which have sizeable exports to China fear some kind of reprisals more than countries that have already outsourced most of their manufacturing to China already... which include the US. Note that the Euro area, unlike the US hasn't been crowded out by China in its manufacturing exports, actually increasing them over the past two decades cfr.org/blog/… – Fizz Dec 2 '20 at 8:26
  • I mean, sure, if your definition/understanding is that doing any business with China is a dependency, and that they should be subjected to North Korea style (near) global embargo, then your answer is valid. But not even Trump took that approach to China, still wanting US farmers to sell their soy beans there, although some on Trump's team surely had a more hawkish approach, in rhetoric at least, talking of "decoupling" etc. – Fizz Dec 2 '20 at 8:38

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