5. Strategic autonomy
The EU is not just dependent on China for rare earths. China is Europe’s main supplier of 10 out of 30 critical raw materials. (1) For products in which these materials are embedded, such as solar cells, permanent magnets, batteries, digital components and devices, the EU is also heavily reliant on China.
This gives China leverage over Europe’s energy and digital transitions, but also over its broader policies. China’s quest for economic dominance is intertwined with its political aspiration to become a leading global power. Its autocratic regime with tech-totalitarian and imperial leanings makes China a systemic rival to the EU. (2) A Europe that wants to protect and promote democracy, human rights and multilateralism should not allow its path towards strategic autonomy to be undermined by Beijing's 'divide and conquer' politics.
Already, the purchase of Chinese digital equipment for 5G networks, which comes with the risk of commercial and political espionage, divides the EU. In the energy field, Europe’s dependence on China may cause headaches too. Chinese producers of polysilicon metal for solar cells are suspected of using forced labourers from the oppressed Uighur minority. (3) The European Parliament demands an outright ban on imports linked to severe human rights violations such as forced labour. (4) Since the EU buys most of its solar cells and panels from China, an import ban might well slow down Europe’s energy transition. Whereas the EU and China need to cooperate in the fight against climate change, the EU must avoid trade-offs between climate protection and human rights.
Push back scarcity
The need to preserve its values and to gain strategic autonomy commands the EU to diversify the sourcing of scarce metals and related products. This includes sourcing from within its borders. Better recycling of scarce metals would represent a first step towards domestic supply chains.