No ‘business as usual’ for European industry

The choices EU leaders make in the coming years will determine whether European industry has a long-term future.

lithium-ion battery cells on production linelithium-ion battery cells on production line
Producing lithium-ion battery cells for electric vehicles—Europe depends on imports for more than 20 per cent of demand; China is the largest exporter (IM Imagery / shutterstock.com)

Weeks before the European Parliament elections, many of Europe’s industries are fighting to survive. But rather than make the difficult decisions needed to reverse the European Union’s industrial decline, leaders have often settled for the status quo. Some populist leaders even oppose plans to modernise Europe’s industrial base—effectively deceiving the public in the process.

Europe’s manufacturing sector has faced a series of unprecedented challenges in recent years. The pandemic and the Ukraine war laid bare Europe’s reliance on others for critical goods and dealt serious blows to manufacturing by disrupting supply chains and triggering energy and cost-of-living crises.

The embrace of short-termism by corporations—reflected in their preference for dividends and share buybacks over reinvestment of profits—has further undermined the EU manufacturing sector’s dynamism and resilience. Compounding all these challenges is the biggest crisis of them all—climate change—which is generating rapidly increasing financial and human costs.

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The impact on European industry is already apparent. In 2022, the EU’s trade deficit reached a staggering €432 billion, driven by higher spending on energy imports and manufacturing losses linked to the energy crisis. In the year to February, industrial production fell by 6.4 per cent in the euro area and by 5.4 per cent in the EU.

European Green Deal

Unless the EU reverses its industrial decline, Europeans could end up without industries which have, for decades, provided quality jobs to countless workers, who gained not only economic security but also a sense of purpose, community and identity. And it is not at all clear how that void would be filled.


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The world’s other major economic powers are already committed to industrial modernisation. Two decades of aggressive industrial strategy have given China a dominant position in most of the clean-technology supply chains. Recently, the United States has responded with an industrial policy of its own, the CHIPS and Science Act and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). If European industries are to remain competitive in this environment—and if Europe is to achieve its goal of ‘strategic autonomy’—the EU will have to follow suit.

The good news is that we already have a roadmap for sustainable industrial modernisation—the European Green Deal, a wide-ranging set of policies aimed at transforming the EU into a modern, resource-efficient and competitive economy. Unfortunately, it hardly represents an easy fix and we are a long way from delivering on it. To get there, European policy-makers will have to deliver unprecedented investment quickly and ensure that industries and workers in all member states are included.

Comprehensive strategy

The Green Deal’s investment demands are considerable. With electricity consumption projected to rise by around 60 per cent by 2030, the European Commission estimates that €584 billion will be needed this decade to modernise our grid alone. This calls for a comprehensive, EU-wide investment strategy that sustains existing heavy industry and incentivises clean-technology innovation.

For nearly 20 years, the EU has favoured the emissions-trading ‘stick’ over carrots, or positive incentives, for decarbonisation. To be sure, the European Emissions Trading System—which effectively establishes a carbon price by forcing companies to acquire enough permits, or ‘allowances’, to cover their carbon-dioxide emissions—has helped to curb emissions from electricity generation. But it has also increased pressure on European industry’s competitiveness—pressure the IRA is compounding.

Europe has attempted to ease that pressure through carbon border taxes and foreign-subsidy regulation. But these are partial measures. EU leaders must go much further, devising a broader industrial strategy that addresses investment shortfalls and mitigates the risks associated with the production of more expensive net-zero goods in a fiercely competitive global market.

Undermining investment

Unfortunately, the EU’s new fiscal rules—agreed by the European Parliament and the Council of the EU in February—will undermine the bloc’s ability to invest in green technology and industrial upgrading, and deepen disparities among member states. According to research by the European Trade Union Confederation, only three countries (Denmark, Ireland and Sweden) can meet their social- and green-investment needs under the new rules. To bridge the gap across the rest of the EU, an additional €300-420 billion will be needed annually. If that funding is not delivered, the EU’s internal market risks fragmentation, which would accelerate deindustrialisation.

Moreover, support for working communities—provided through strong social conditionalities on all public-funding, public-procurement and lead-market initiatives—is needed to boost economic growth, create jobs and protect the environment, all of which are essential to win public trust. Exceptional times demand innovative solutions, not more of the same failed policies. Approaches such as austerity, labour-market ‘flexibilisation’ and privatisation will only exacerbate the problems we face.

Similarly, short-sighted populism is no substitute for the holistic industrial strategy Europe needs to match those of its competitors—an approach that accounts for all dimensions of the challenges ahead. For example, a one-dimensional focus on strict environmental criteria risks producing unaffordable green products, which would stall progress in electric vehicles and other critical industries.

The choices we make in the coming years will determine whether European industry—integral to the EU’s social fabric—has a long-term future. That is why the next European Parliament must make implementing a renewed European Green Deal, complemented by initiatives to bolster industry and attract broad public support, a priority.

Republication forbidden—copyright Project Syndicate 2024, ‘There can be no business as usual for European industry’


Jutith Kirton DarlingJutith Kirton Darling

Judith Kirton-Darling is general secretary of industriAll European Trade Union. She was a British member of the European Parliament between 2014 and 2020 and confederal secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation.

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