This afternoon, British trade unionists from the highly skilled steel industry descended on Brussels with thousands of their colleagues from across Europe. Today saw workers rally outside a European Commission conference on the ‘future of energy intensive industries’, which among other things discussed the all-important reform of EU trade defence policies.
The protest takes place in the context of a European steel industry that is struggling to compete with cheap Chinese steel that is being dumped on the market. In Yorkshire & Humber alone, thousands have lost their jobs in the past months as a consequence of this, so it’s clear that urgent action is needed to address this crisis.
Clearly, the first line of responsibility for British steel lies with what can be done by the British government. David Cameron’s government has not done anywhere near as much as governments in other EU countries have to help their steel industries, namely through state aid (which is entirely compatible with EU rules). Nor has his government applied for EU funding designed to help people who have lost their jobs under such circumstances. Those funds could be spent on helping communities in the UK, but are instead lying unused.
But there are also some key aspects to this issue that could be addressed at European level. The EU has much more clout to pressure the Chinese government over steel dumping than the UK could alone.
Labour MEPs have been heavily involved in pushing for deployment of effective EU trade defence instruments to deal with situations like dumping. The problem is, less than 1% of total steel imports from China are currently covered through current defence measures. Compare this with the clear evidence of large-scale dumping from China, and it’s clear that our trade defence instruments are simply not working as they should.
The European Commission is well aware that such instruments must be modernised and proposed reform of the system in 2013. But national ministers have not been able to agree on this reform, and a group of countries, led by the UK, have been blocking any progress. The message from the British government on this issue is clear: it only wants cosmetic reforms of trade defence instruments.
The British steel industry is competitive and productive, with an experienced workforce that deserves to be supported and protected. Ministers must put in place the measures to allow us to compete on a level playing field, as only by working together at EU level can we hope to put real pressure on the Chinese government over steel dumping.