Comment: EU dithers while China steals a march

Martin FlanaganMartin Flanagan
Martin Flanagan
IT’S starkly sad how the European Commission (EC) has allowed the UK and European steel industry to play near the furnace and drift towards existential crisis, while bending over backwards to allow EU countries to bail out hubristic and greedy bankers. Money talks, steel walks, obviously.

The EC has been unconscionably slow in dealing with a torrent of cheap steel imports, mainly from China. Along with higher electricity and environmental costs here, as well as the unhelpful strength of sterling, it has fomented a perfect storm for what is a pretty efficient domestic industry.

UK steel has been playing in effect in international markets with one hand tied behind its back. The mothballing of Redcar by its Thai owners last month after an illusory rescue showed which way the cinders and smoke were blowing.

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Now the distressing news from Tata Steel, involving 1,200 redundancies and casting a huge shadow over the increasingly ghost steeltown operations in Scotland and Scunthorpe down south, has underlined the gravity of the threat to the future of the sector in Britain.

The timing is obviously embarrassing for David Cameron hosting Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state trip to Britain. Critics will say is Britain is kowtowing to the head of one of the key perpetrators of the possibly terminal decline of what was once a linchpin industry.

It must rub salt in the wounds of the pretty much blameless British steel workers, given the draconian efficiency programmes and cuts they have endured for many years now, that China is poised to make significant inroads into our rail and nuclear industries in return for us becoming their new best European buddies. The logic is inscrutable to many. The haemorrhaging of jobs and economic vitality at Dalzell, Clydebridge and Scunthorpe, including the mothballing of steel plate mills, will add nothing to the government’s professed desire to rebalance the economy away from an over-mighty services sector and towards manufacturing and exports. What price the vaunted march of the makers?

Can much be done to save British steel, of which we were the main worldwide exporter in the Victorian industrial revolution?

If political and trade union rhetoric could do it alone, then possibly. But there have to be doubts about the will and ability of the European authorities to act at this late stage of what looms as an industrial tragedy of the first magnitude.