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.

Recycling

Expert network for rare earths

Already in 2010, green Member of the European Parliament Reinhard Bütikofer took action to counter the risks of Europe’s dependence on rare earths from China. In that year, a drastic reduction of Chinese export quotas for rare earths sent prices outside China skyrocketing. Bütikofer initiated the European Rare Earths Competency Network (ERECON), which brought together over a hundred European experts in rare earths. (5) They came up with  a set of recommendations on research, extraction, processing, recycling and substitution, including a call to start mining rare earths in Europe. (6)
However, the rare earths issue slid off the European Commission’s agenda after the end of the supply crunch and after producers of permanent magnets had moved their operations to China.

The ecodesign requirements that boost a circular use of metals are all the more valuable because EU standards are followed by producers worldwide. (7) The same goes for due diligence requirements: even Chinese firms will have to clean up their act if they want to serve the European market. (8) Thus, EU standards can help push back economic, physical and geopolitical scarcity worldwide.

However, recycled metals can only gradually replace virgin metals. (9) To diversify its supply, the EU also needs to strengthen its ties with supplier countries outside China. Not by forcing them into free market economics, as in the case of Indonesia, but by marrying trade with sustainable development. More generally, the EU needs to step up its development cooperation and provide an alternative to Chinese loans that have caught several poorer countries in a debt trap.

Competition

Helping developing countries add more value to their metal ores may eventually mean that they compete with European industries for the same resources. Indonesia, for instance, has already signed deals for the construction of battery and electric vehicle plants on its territory. (10) Even the DRC is slowly moving up the value chain. Will these countries remain willing to share their refined nickel and cobalt with the rest of the world once they have the capacity to transform them into end products? (11)

The global South overcoming the resource curse and producing its own cleantech would be a milestone on the way towards the SDGs. Even so, it raises the question whether Europe’s industry can rely on imported metals. Should we look under our own feet instead?

Footnotes

Further viewing

Financial Times, 'Why China's control of rare earths matters' Afspelen op YouTube
Logo Green European Foundation

Green European Foundation (GEF)

This project is organised by the Green European Foundation with the support of Wetenschappelijk Bureau GroenLinks (NL), Fundacja Strefa Zieleni (PL), Transición Verde (ES), Etopia (BE), Institut Aktivního Občanství (CZ), Green Economics Institute (UK) and Visio (FI), and with the financial support of the European Parliament to the Green European Foundation.

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