Get free The FT View updates
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email every morning with the latest news from The FT View.
The International Motor Show, Europe’s largest motor show, is usually dominated by the continent’s leading internal combustion engine brands, including BMW, Mercedes and Porsche. At the recent trade fair in Munich last week, the spotlight was on electric vehicles – a sector in which the EU car industry has fallen well behind China.
The bloc is determined not to let car production run like the solar industry, which was overwhelmed a decade ago by fierce competition from cheap Chinese imports. On Wednesday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced an anti-subsidy investigation into China’s electric vehicle industry, marking an escalation in tensions with Beijing as the bloc seeks to reduce its dependence on China.
It should come as no surprise that the Chinese state has heavily subsidized its electric vehicle industry. From raw materials to production, it has dominated the supply chain for decades. It has acted anti-competitively and it is fair for the EU to investigate Chinese practices. But ultimately retaliation would not be in his interest.
First, if you’re serious about reducing carbon emissions as quickly as possible, it shouldn’t matter where electric vehicles are made – especially since the EU plans to ban the sale of new internal combustion engine cars from 2035 . There is also no clear statement that China’s presence in the European electric vehicle market poses a national security risk and already faces a 10 percent tariff. In fact, Brussels imposed tariffs on Chinese solar panels in 2013, but lifted them five years later because the company could not meet its renewable energy goals without them.
Further tariffs on Chinese imports would also coddle European automakers, which have been dawdling with electric vehicles for years. German manufacturers have been resisting this for a long time, and trade unions and car lobbies have been reluctant to move away from combustion engines – where the European industry has strengths and which are also more labor-intensive.
EU tariffs on Chinese electric vehicles would also worsen relations and risk triggering retaliation from Beijing that could harm European interests; On Thursday, China’s Commerce Ministry criticized the EU’s investigation as a “naked protectionist act.” Cheap imports from China during a cost of living crisis benefit the EU, especially while European production is less efficient. German manufacturers rely heavily on sales in the Chinese market and European manufacturers are already integrating batteries from Chinese companies in Europe or China into their supply chains. Efforts to counter car imports from Japan in the 1980s ultimately led to Japanese companies moving production to Europe anyway.
The investigation itself could simply be von der Leyen’s reaction to political pressure. Still, Europe still needs to accelerate the development of electric vehicle models and know-how to ensure it does not become too dependent on Chinese production. In fact, given the expected demand for electric vehicles, there will be a sufficiently large market for domestic manufacturers even if the flood of Chinese electric vehicles continues. Imports of Chinese electric vehicles make up only a small part of the bloc’s market, although it is forecast to rise to 15 percent in the coming years.
China has created a level playing field, but the gap between European and Chinese electric vehicle manufacturers cannot be attributed solely to Beijing’s actions. Europe was hesitant about the transition and lacked foresight. The bloc needs to expand its presence in electric vehicles – improved tax incentives and building charging infrastructure could help. But resorting to protectionism is not a solution. Industries are constantly evolving and for automakers it is now the battery, not the engine, that provides the added value. Europe learned this the hard way. Perhaps competitive pressure can help its manufacturers finally take the plunge.
Source : www.ft.com