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Aggregates sector must not be forgotten amid populist fears

First publishedin Aggregates Business Europe
March April 2019
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Shelves at Jelsa Atlas Copco DSC_1682650.jpg
Mibau Stema Group's granite quarry in Jelsa, western Norway pic: Ole Henrik Kalviknes
You could easily be forgiven in view of the amount of newspaper and current affairs magazine column inches devoted to it, that the European Parliament elections in May this year will result in a populist takeover of the levers of power, with many traditional European parties and political groupings racking up huge member losses after being shunned by an angry electorate.

I am not convinced that the above scenario will play out quite like that, but one thing is for sure: fears of a tidal wave of political populism in Europe and its current manifestations, such as Brexit (the UK’s departure from the European Union) (EU) and the gilets jaunes protests in France, are dominating the minds of the continent’s political movers and shakers. That is dangerous when there are so many other important areas to concentrate on, not least how best to protect and improve European industries, including the continent’s aggregates industry.

In the November-December 2018 issue of Aggregates Business Europe, the UEPG (European Aggregates Association) reported on how it is supporting the Industry4Europe initiative, a coalition involving 137 associations co-ordinated by the European rail manufacturing industry, UNIFE. The initiative is calling for a coherent medium- to long-term industrial strategy that ensures sustainable access for industries to resources and energy at a competitive price.

Industry4Europe also recently issued a joint paper urging the creation of a set of indicators that can accurately assess the industrial performance of the EU and, whenever possible, in comparison to other geographical competitors in the world, such as China, the US, Japan, South Korea and the combined emerging BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) economies. Such potent indicators, Industry4Europe argues, will be key to creating a coherent and effective medium- to long-term EU industrial strategy. A further Industry4Europe joint paper on governance calls for an informed and permanent dialogue between the industry and policy decision-makers in association with civil society stakeholders and for a European Commission (EC) vice-president exclusively in charge of industry.

Another well-respected body has joined UEPG and UNIFE in calling for a more joined-up and long-term EU strategy for industry. The Committee for European Construction Equipment (CECE), which represents the European construction equipment manufacturing industry, says the EU must ensure that industry and manufacturing are at the heart of its policy making over the next five-year term for the legislature following the May 2019 elections.

The CECE also echoes UEPG and UNIFE in requesting the appointment of an EC vice-president for industry. It is also seeking a European Parliament intergroup on sustainable industrial competitiveness to accompany the work of the EC and gather stakeholders from across all areas and interests. To me, the calls from the likes of UEPG and CECE are both rational and convincing.

I would perhaps add that it would also help, from a European aggregates sector perspective, if the EU had more sharp-end minerals processing expertise in its law-making ranks. Problems associated with a lack of or a perceived lack of understanding of aggregates producers’ needs is also evident at a national level. Take the UK, for example, and the Mineral Products Association’s (MPA) concern over the lack of any integrated consideration of the supply chain implications of infrastructure ambitions within the draft National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA), or more generally within government. The MPA argues that the implementation and maintenance of British infrastructure projects over the next 20 years is likely to require two billion tonnes of aggregates and mineral products. However, without a strategic approach supporting the future supply of aggregates and mineral products, which is integrated with infrastructure, housing and construction objectives within government and amongst stakeholders, the MPA says there is no guarantee that projects can be delivered in the medium to long term.

Perhaps the overriding message to the Brussels-based EU and national governments such as the UK’s should be it’s good to talk, but it’s even better to listen and act.