Critical raw materials (CRMs), which have been defined as economically and strategically important resources, have long faced difficulties when it comes to being traded either into or from the European Union (EU). Trade duties, substitute materials and legislative barriers are just a few of the issues highlighted by industry over the past five years.
However, while the European Commission’s (EC) Critical Raw Materials policy has been reworked to resolve these concerns over the past five years, the European Parliament says the key to a truly successful policy is effective communication.
“If industry can’t convince the general public of raw material importance, how are politicians expected to succeed?” said Professor Dr Godelieve Quisthoudt-Rowohl, a member of the European Parliament.
Speaking out at an event held by the Critical Raw Materials Alliance (CRM Alliance) in Brussels, Belgium, this week, Quisthoudt-Rowohl explained that it is difficult to communicate CRM issues within parliament, since most politicians simply don’t know what they’re voting for.
“They don’t feel concerned about the issues faced [by CRM representatives] because they don’t understand the details,” she said.
Using a recent vote as an example, Quisthoudt-Rowohl noted that if politicians don’t have a scientific or technological background, they are unlikely to understand the significance of the issues being voted on.
“I was asked to vote (…) on an issue that I did not have the details on,” she explained, adding that it is therefore of paramount importance that industry communicates its issues in a way that is comprehendible by the masses, not just the experts.
However, Sylvi Classnitzer, REACH officer at the German Engineering Centre, questioned what can be done to improve the situation, stating that there are already initiatives in place that are designed to increase the amount of scientific communication between industry and government.
Quisthoudt-Rowohl responded by saying that while these initiatives are important, she still believes more needs to be done.
CRM trade policies
Five years ago, the European Commission (EC) identified 14 raw materials as being critical on the grounds that they are “economically and strategically important” and are “subject to a higher risk of supply interruption in the next 10 years”.
While the 2010 list of critical raw materials contained 14 raw materials, an update in 2014 contained 20. Of these, six are industrial minerals, namely borates, fluorspar, heavy and light rare earths, phosphate rock and natural graphite.
These minerals have been classed as “critical” owing to two main criteria: economic importance and supply risk (poor governance). According to the CRM Alliance, they are “immediately important to Europe’s economy and essential to drive future innovations in maintaining Europe’s technological leadership in a highly competitive world economy”.
However, the current EC policy is not fit for purpose, according to the CRM Alliance, which promotes the importance of critical materials to the EU and supports a critical materials policy.
In a bid to iron out the creases in the current legislation, CRM Alliance members, which comprise more than 300 companies, have agreed on five key recommendations, explained Dr Martin Tauber, president of the CRM Alliance.
The first is that CRM policies should focus on supporting enhanced raw materials supply, instead of promoting the use of substitute materials.
Members also believe that industrial sector policies should incorporate and highlight the economic and strategic importance of CRMs and their value to future innovation; waste legislation should not include disincentives for usage of CRMs; and legislation should require a special socio-economic analysis of potentially harmful impact to the supply of CRMs.
Creating a win-win situation
The final point, that trade policy should incorporate principles of both free and fair trade for CRMs, was the recommendation that received the most focus from CRM Alliance members in Brussels this week.
Signe Ratso, director of the Directorate General for Trade of the European Commission, said that one of the objectives the EC is working on is for a full or partial ban on export restrictions and duties and that there will be priority given to critical materials on which the EU is import reliant.
“The list of critical raw materials decided upon by the EC will be used as a tool for this objective (…) the EU will remain committed to free and open trade agreements,” Ratso explained.
Not all agreed that the work towards this objective has been successful to date, however.
Representatives from Zimbabwe and South Africa said that there is much work to be done before a win-win situation is possible for third world or developing countries, which are at the moment facing either a lose-lose or lose-win situation when it comes to trade agreements with the EU.
Responding to these comments, Ratso reiterated that the EC is working hard to create a situation that works for all CRM importers and exporters, pointing out that the EC is looking at changing the policy in line with the level of development taking place in each region – there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution.
At the same time as fine tuning the current CRM policy, the EC will now work on updating legislation in response to industry’s calls. In a broader sense it will work on tackling barriers, creating a dialogue with key partner industries and improving strategic cooperation with key partner countries.
However, the EC is also set to review the CRM methodology and the current list of CRMs, which has not been revised since 2013.
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