Brussels The EU wants to reduce dependence on raw material imports. In the future, critical minerals are to come in larger quantities from domestic mines and be processed in Europe. This emerges from a draft for the Raw Materials Act, which is available to the Handelsblatt. The EU also wants to strengthen the recycling of raw materials.
The law, drafted by Industry Commissioner Thierry Breton, aims to counter “growing supply risks” in raw materials needed for digitization and the energy transition. According to the draft, ten percent of the European demand for “strategic raw materials” is to be reduced in the EU in the future. An additional 15 percent is to be obtained through recycling.
So far, the EU has classified 30 minerals or groups of minerals as critical – such as gallium, phosphate, cobalt and lithium. The list will now be revised regularly. These raw materials are indispensable for digitization and the energy transition.
The EU also wants to promote the construction of refineries in which the minerals are processed and proposes a production target of 40 percent of the demand. Up until now, there has hardly been any capacity in this area in Europe.
In order to achieve its goals, the EU relies on faster approval procedures. So far, more than ten years can lie between the first application for the exploitation of a strategic raw material deposit and the start of production. In future, the approval process should take a maximum of two years. Above all, the assessment of environmental consequences should be drastically shortened. The Commission hopes that the first projects will be implemented as early as 2030.
EU so far dependent on other countries
“The focus on the approval process is particularly important,” says Hildegard Bentele (CDU), rapporteur for critical raw materials in the EU Parliament. The Commission’s proposal is “constructive” and in parts “very ambitious”. It will now be interesting to see how the member states position themselves.
In Berlin, the EU initiative met with approval: “In Europe, we can make sustainable raw material extraction, but also processing and recycling the core of the brand and build the green value chains of the future together with our partners,” says Franziska Brantner (Greens), the responsible parliamentary state secretary in the Federal Ministry of Economics.
So far, the EU has been almost completely dependent on supplies from abroad. According to a study by the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), the import quota is 100 percent for 14 of the 27 critical raw materials. The EU Commission calculates with similar numbers. The global supply is dominated by China with critical raw materials.
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Breton argues that Europe can no longer afford this dependency. The Ukraine war made it clear that authoritarian states use raw materials as leverage. The Russian leadership has tried to blackmail Europe with a natural gas embargo. “The risk of supply disruptions has grown against the background of increasing geopolitical tensions,” writes the commission in its draft law.
Demand for critical materials is increasing
At the same time, the demand for critical minerals is increasing dramatically. The EU Commission expects lithium demand in 2050 to be 57 times higher than before. So far, between 60 and 70 percent of global consumption is covered by China, where lithium is processed in refineries. It is mainly mined in the salt lakes of Latin America.
Lithium is a critical raw material for batteries – and therefore of great importance for the market success of electric cars. Rare earths are also counted among the critical minerals, they are not only used in IT products such as smartphones, but also in modern wind turbines. And in almost all cases they come from China.
“Lithium and rare earths will soon be more important than oil and gas,” says Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. “Our need for rare earths alone will increase fivefold by 2030.”
The fact that China is no longer considered a reliable supplier is not only due to the aggressive foreign policy of President Xi Jinping and the military threats against Taiwan.
The Commission notes in its draft law that China cut off supplies of magnesium in 2021 – and that the EU was almost entirely dependent on Chinese imports at the time. With the planned law, the Commission wants to create the basis for ordering stress tests for security of supply in sectors such as renewable energies and the chip industry.
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However, the extraction of raw materials from deposits in Europe is controversial. This is shown by the example of a planned lithium mine in Serbia. After popular protests, the government withdrew a permit for the Rio Tinto group. The project is hanging in the balance. In order to reduce dependence on raw material imports, the EU will still have to do a lot of convincing.
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