Friday, 1 April 2016

Cameron: not a man of steel

Guess who has been trying to reduce the dumping of cheap Chinese steel into the EU. Answer: the European Commission.

And guess who vetoed the Commission's proposals. Answer: the British government.

Or, if you prefer: guess who has been the biggest EU cheerleader for China to be granted 'market economy status' by the World Trade Organisation. Answer: the British government.

And guess what effect that would have on the EU's ability to impose higher tariffs on Chinese steel imports. Answer: it would be drastically reduced.

So when the prime minister assures the 40,000 families in and around Port Talbot whose livelihoods are threatened by the threatened closure of the Tata-owned steel works that the government is doing everything it can to safeguard their interests, my reaction is: really?

Is that why UK steel companies say they are paying up to seven times more in business rates than their European competitors?  Or why their energy costs are about 80% higher than the European average?

Perhaps you're wondering whether the British government would be better able to support the steel industry if we voted to leave the EU. The answer is No. For one thing, more than half of the UK's steel exports go to other EU countries, so if we left the club, we would either be hit by a tariff barrier -- like Canada, for example -- or, in return for a continuation of tariff-free access to the EU market, we would have to sign up to all its directives and regulations, like Norway or Switzerland, but without having had any say in the drafting of them. 

In the words of Port Talbot's Labour MP, Stephen Kinnock: 'We are in this crisis not because of Europe, but because of a Tory government that has singularly failed to stand up for British steel.'

I drive a car that was made in the UK by British car workers. It is made of steel that almost certainly was produced in Port Talbot, where about one-third of their production is used for British-made cars. Yet my car bears the name of a Japanese manufacturer, and the Port Talbot steel works is owned by an Indian company. Welcome to the globalised economy.

And here are some statistics to boggle your mind: according to Ed Conway of Sky News, in the past two years alone China has produced more steel than the total cumulative output of the UK since the industrial revolution. Over the past 35 years, Chinese steel production has gone from 5% of world output to more than 50%. That's a helluva lot of steel, and now that economic growth in China is slowing sharply, they have to dump that steel somewhere.

But the UK government is head over heels in love with China, which it regards as the answer to all its infrastructure investment prayers. David Cameron and George Osborne don't like borrowing to invest, and they don't like raising taxes to generate additional revenue, so what could be better than throwing open the doors to UK plc and announcing: All investors welcome, no questions asked.

That's why they don't want the EU to upset Beijing by making it harder for them to dump their unwanted steel in Europe. And it's why, when Mr Cameron rushes back from his holiday to furrow his brow for the TV cameras and tell us how 'very difficult' it all is, we are entitled to a snort of derision.

He's right, of course, it is very difficult, and the crisis at Port Talbot is not unique to the UK. But Germany, for example, has been far better at creating conditions in which a viable steel industry can survive by putting in place a proper industrial strategy involving long-term investment decisions, top-class vocational education and state-funded research and development programmes.

Still, it's not all bad news. According to the latest data from the European Banking Authority, the UK now has three times as many high-earning bankers as the rest of the EU combined. Nearly 3,000 City bankers earned more than €1 million in 2014, 40% up on the previous year, and 16 of them actually managed to take home more than €10 million.

Perhaps some of them might be persuaded to invest in the Port Talbot steel works.

1 comment:

Tim Haynes said...

To paraphrase the old saw - this government knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing.