Save our steel

I started the week by joining GMB and Unite — and steel workers from across Europe — in a rally outside the emergency meeting of national governments (at which the UK’s Business Secretary Sajid Javid was present), called to discuss Europe’s steel industry crisis. Five CEOs of steel companies were invited to an informal dinner with the ministers (but not one trade union representative!)

Across Europe, workers in the productive and highly skilled steel industry are losing their jobs as firms struggle to compete with cheap Chinese steel being dumped on the market. In Yorkshire & Humber alone, 900 people have lost their jobs at the Tata works in Scunthorpe in the past month. It’s clear that urgent action is needed to address this crisis, so our steel industry can compete on a level playing field.

Clearly, the first line of responsibility for British steel lies with what can be done at national level by the British government. But there are also some key aspects at the European level. The EU has much more clout to pressure the Chinese government over steel dumping than the UK could alone. The EU has tools to act against unfair trade practices through anti-dumping duties (in fact, the EU is one of the largest users of trade defence measures in the world). Roughly one third of such measures are related to steel, and already many relate to China. What this means in practice is that the EU can put 20-25% tariffs on specific steel products entering the EU.

Unfortunately, however, introducing new trade defence measures takes time. The European Commission has to receive a complaint from the sector, investigate it, assemble the necessary evidence, and demonstrate that dumping has taken place. This takes a minimum of 9 months. It’s too slow.

That’s why the Commission put forward a proposal over a year ago that would enable the EU to act more swiftly in such circumstances. National governments have been as of yet unable to agree on this proposal, with a blocking minority preventing its adoption led by … Cameron’s government! It’s clear that this discussion was taken more seriously at this week’s emergency meeting in Brussels – but it’s simply too little, too late for those who have already lost their jobs.

Nor is the government doing all it can nationally. It has not done as much as governments in other EU countries to help the British steel industry with its energy costs. It has not provided state aid. It has not even asked for access to the EU funding designed to help people who have lost their jobs under such circumstances, to give immediate relief to those who need it. The UK is entitled to this funding — but so far Cameron has ruled out applying for the £5 million available from the Globalisation Adjustment Fund. That’s £5 million that could be spent on helping communities in the UK, but is instead lying unused.

Labour MEPs will continue to press for national and European-level action. It does seem that Tories in the European Parliament have at least begun to wake up to the issue — in a vote in the European Parliament on Wednesday, they joined Labour MEPs in calling for an emergency debate on steel that will now take place later this month in Strasbourg. Let’s hope this is a sign of the tide turning on the issue.

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