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Document 52023IE0879

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on ‘For a resilient, sustainable and responsible European Union supply chain of critical raw materials’ (Own-initiative opinion)

EESC 2023/00879

OJ C, C/2023/857, 08.12.2023, ELI: http://data.europa.eu/eli/C/2023/857/oj (BG, ES, CS, DA, DE, ET, EL, EN, FR, GA, HR, IT, LV, LT, HU, MT, NL, PL, PT, RO, SK, SL, FI, SV)

ELI: http://data.europa.eu/eli/C/2023/857/oj

European flag

Official Journal
of the European Union

EN

Series C


C/2023/857

8.12.2023

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on ‘For a resilient, sustainable and responsible European Union supply chain of critical raw materials’

(Own-initiative opinion)

(C/2023/857)

Rapporteur:

Cinzia DEL RIO

Plenary Assembly Decision

25.1.2023

Legal basis

Rule 52(2) of the Rules of Procedure

 

Own-initiative opinion

Section responsible

Single Market, Production and Consumption

Adopted in section

4.9.2023

Adopted at plenary

20.9.2023

Plenary session No

581

Outcome of vote

(for/against/abstentions)

156/36/44

1.   Conclusions and recommendations

1.1.

The opinion identifies, as a priority, the social and environmental responses to the impact of the increasing use of critical raw materials in value chains in third countries, as the way global value chains, climate change and decent work are interconnected has not yet been sufficiently addressed. When it comes to European strategic autonomy, other vital sectors such as the health, defence and electronics sectors find themselves particularly exposed to unfair competition or to manipulation by third countries.

1.2.

The combination of COVID-19, geopolitical impact following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and renewed US-China tension in the Indo-Pacific have led to polarising international relations that are becoming increasingly evident. In the context of global competition between the EU, the US and China, the main priority of governments and of the EU today is to secure the most essential raw materials to support greening and digitally transforming the industrial system through new rare earth supply chain geopolitics. Respect for social and environmental standards throughout the value chains remains a fundamental objective of EU policies in all countries (1).

1.3.

To address these challenges, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) proposes a set of objectives and measures to achieve a resilient, sustainable and responsible EU supply chain. EU policy decisions should therefore include the following recommendations:

1.4.

recognise, on the basis of current international dynamics and imperative social and environmental constraints, that voluntary and non-binding measures are not enough to address such complex challenges;

1.5.

involve all actors — both public and private — in managing technical and financial aid to promote a systematic transition, avoiding further structural divides between EU countries and ensuring balance, inclusiveness and equal access to support, starting with the measures for a just transition, in line with international guidelines (2);

1.6.

involve the European Parliament, and not simply as an observer, in the European Critical Raw Materials Board. We expect the board to consult EU social partners and CSOs on all proposals, ensuring inclusive decisions and a level playing field for EU countries;

1.7.

take into account medium- to long-term objectives in diversifying supply sources to: a) reduce critical raw material (CRM) demand and consumption and invest in recycling and reuse; b) increase, with regular monitoring, the use of renewable materials; c) invest in resilient, sustainable and responsible mining and production practices, including in third countries, in order to raise social and environmental standards; d) increase supply from partners that are considered ‘reliable’, in terms of both commercial and social and environmental safeguards; e) negotiate new trade agreements (free trade agreements — FTAs) and adapt existing agreements by enhancing instruments for implementing the Trade and Sustainable Development Chapter effectively, based on compliance with the international labour and environmental standards and on promoting their implementation;

1.8.

urge the EU co-legislators to reach an agreement on a corporate sustainability due diligence directive and to develop strategic projects throughout the supply and subcontracting chain, including in third countries, ensuring that the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Guidelines for multinational enterprises, the ILO Tripartite Declaration of principles concerning multinational enterprises and social policy, and the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas are applied, in order to disengage from those countries in a responsible manner. Fast track procedures for strategic projects should not allow social and environmental standards to be exceeded. The EESC reiterates what has already been underlined in previous opinions — that ‘despite the primary due diligence obligation of large companies, MSMEs will be indirectly affected, as companies which fall within the scope of the directive will increase their demands on suppliers with regard to their implementation of the UNGPs, their non-financial reporting and their own supply chain management. The EESC calls on Member States to provide assistance, particularly to MSMEs, in a manner that is practical, specific and efficient, within a framework of structural cooperation with the representative organisations concerned’ (3);

1.9.

take as reference points the due diligence procedures defined by both the strategy on decent work in supply chains adopted by the ILO this year (4) and the OECD’s new guidelines on due diligence in the extractive sector for implementing due diligence for companies involved in this sector.

1.10.

ensure binding compliance with all international rules and standards in trade agreements, starting with those on illicit trade in resources, including trade-related sanctions;

1.11.

apply the OECD’s provisions in relation to pre-existing stocks of heavy rare earths or rare earth products; where possible, identify the sources of supplies and implement due diligence throughout the supply chain, ensuring compliance and not relying on third parties. There is a need to explore the possibility to act in case of repeated non-compliance by the supplier;

1.12.

support trade partners in promoting decent work, equal pay and equal opportunities at work through social dialogue and collective bargaining. Provide support so that companies are able to identify sector-specific risks (5) and implement due diligence procedures in their management systems;

1.13.

adopt procedures so that companies that benefit from incentives and other forms of support do not directly or indirectly contribute to harm related to the use of raw materials and heavy rare earths mined irresponsibly, in contexts where human and environmental rights are likely to be violated and in conflict situations;

1.14.

ensure that an environmental impact assessment is carried out before strategic projects are implemented, extending the current 30-day limit and involving the social partners and local communities in order to facilitate consensus among all stakeholders and avoid the risk of projects being implemented in protected areas. Ensure that the potential of these initiatives to create quality jobs is fully exploited;

1.15.

set a 30 % target for projects involving secondary raw materials acquired from landfills, recycling facilities, or by re-extracting waste, for example. It will be equally important to assess the companies involved, based on past performance, ensuring a transparent and democratic selection process involving all the EU institutions and stakeholders in the decision-making process, and not just the Commission’s new Regulatory Scrutiny Board;

1.16.

establish cooperation between the various actors in the production chain, supporting the promotion of comprehensive agreements between the social partners and, as defined by the International Labour Organization (ILO) (6), support all stakeholders and multinational and national enterprises to take appropriate measures to ensure the state’s duty to protect and the responsibility of businesses to respect human rights, strengthening public institutions and the capacity building of social partners and civil society;

1.17.

urge investors and rare earth industries to publish reports on their sources of supplies from third-country suppliers, using financial leverage and possible restrictive measures to deter companies from sourcing from countries at risk. Social and environmental protection costs, including waste and recycling treatment processes, should also be included in the product;

1.18.

support production chain digitalisation. The use of digital technologies will be fundamental in improving supply chain management and production chain efficiency, and in identifying problems in a timely manner through order management platforms, product traceability and production process monitoring;

1.19.

invest in training, up-skilling and innovation to create quality jobs and sustainable production systems through EU incentives and financial instruments to strengthen the entire production chain.

2.   General comments

2.1.   Background

2.1.1.

The new geopolitical context makes it necessary to redesign production chains according to new criteria, which are no longer mainly linked to costs and market dynamics alone: 1) independence from individual dominant countries, diversifying supply sources to avoid risks of supply disruption; 2) strategic autonomy for political reasons, among others; 3) security; and; 4) environmental and social sustainability.

2.1.2.

The increasing use of value chains has contributed to job creation, turning millions of informal jobs into formal jobs. However, as outlined by the ILO (7), in many situations it has also contributed to worsening working conditions and health and safety, and an increase in child and forced labour and forms of discrimination, with no legal protection. Additionally, it has led to serious environmental impact, especially in the mining sector, in industrial areas and in export processing zones (EPZs), where there is a strong prevalence of female workers.

2.1.3.

There are more than 450 million workers working in global supply chains, of which 190 million are women (8). This number was greatly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and not just in the clothing and agricultural sectors, but also in the mining and automotive sectors (9). Women, who make up a large part of the workforce in global supply chains, are mainly employed in low-paid and low-skilled jobs. According to ILO data, there are 3,4 million workers in Europe’s mining and refining sector alone.

2.1.4.

On the environmental front, even the World Bank has called for synergistic action through new production policies, starting with strategic minerals (10).

2.1.5.

Europe is highly dependent on third countries for mining and processing critical raw materials. 63 % of cobalt used in batteries is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 97 % of magnesium comes from China, and nearly 100 % of rare earths used globally are refined in China but mined elsewhere (largely in Myanmar). South Africa supplies 71 % of platinum-group metals (ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium, iridium and platinum) (11), while Türkiye supplies 98 % of Europe’s borate supplies (12). A recent European Parliament study (13) provides updated data on CRM import levels and shows that most raw materials, essential for some European industrial sectors and imported by the EU, come from countries with little economic freedom and low levels of democracy, and will be difficult to replace in the short term.

2.1.6.

A concrete example is that of Myanmar (Burma), which has been under a violent military dictatorship for two years and is a mining country ‘used’ by China. Since 2016, in Kachin State, a territory in the country’s north, more than 2 700 heavy rare earth mines have appeared over an area the size of Singapore. According to a Global Witness Report, outsourcing this highly toxic sector to Myanmar has turned this area into the world’s largest source of supply of dysprosium and terbium, two of the most valuable heavy rare earth metals (14). Additionally, although critical raw materials are extremely important for innovative production, they are often highly toxic for those who work with them. This is the case for lithium, for example (15). According to the European Chemicals Agency’s Risk Assessment Committee, three lithium salts (lithium carbonate, lithium hydroxide and lithium chloride) should be classified as ‘known human reproductive toxicants’ because they can lead to infertility and miscarriage (16). The classification is opposed by some manufacturers, who argue that the scientific evidence is too weak to justify such a severe classification, which would have ‘a major impact on Europe’s industrial goals for electric vehicles, batteries and critical raw materials (17)’.

2.1.7.

The EESC stresses how important it is for the objectives of the new European strategy for the use of raw materials (including rare and often toxic raw materials which are crucial for European industry) to focus on investing in innovative and sustainable mining methods, on recycling and reusing rare materials, and on replacing toxic with non-toxic materials, shifting supply from countries with jeopardised social and environmental standards. At the same time, protecting the health and safety of workers that use these raw materials, in line with international standards, is paramount. The EESC calls on the EU Member States that have not yet done so to ratify the two fundamental ILO conventions (155 and 187) on health and safety at work, which enshrine the right to a safe working environment (18).

2.1.8.

A wide range of available data has shown that environmental destruction, land confiscation, the recruitment of brutal militias (linked to power in some countries), and the rise in the demand for rare earths and green energy have dramatically increased abuse at local level in a number of situations.

3.   EU action and value chain sustainability

3.1.

In 2020, the European Commission launched the European Raw Materials Alliance (ERMA) to adapt legislation and build more resilient EU industrial ecosystems.

3.2.

On 1 February 2023, the EU launched the Green Deal Industrial Plan (GDIP) through two of its instruments: the Net-Zero Industry Act and the Critical Raw Materials Act.

3.3.

The European strategy (19) identifies long-term objectives to ensure greater European autonomy at global level, but should also aim to promote a new strategy for third-country suppliers, closely linking the EU’s economic and trade interests to social and labour rights obligations under EU, national and international law, collective agreements and international environment law. One targeted study looks at the social life cycle assessment methodology as a tool for responsibly sourcing raw materials in Europe (20).

3.4.

Associated Press research shows that rare earths were not included in the EU Regulation (21) on minerals mined in conflict-affected areas. This Regulation aims to prevent or reduce the supply of minerals from regions in which profits finance armed conflict, however it only applies to a limited number of minerals — tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold (3TG) — from the Democratic Republic of Congo, from neighbouring countries, and from other high-risk areas. A European Commission statement noted gaps in oversight of the supply chain stretching to Europe, and said ‘it is as yet unclear how’ a Chinese push to regulate rare earths will work (22).

3.5.

The Minerals Security Partnership signed in 2019 — initially by the United States, Canada and Australia, who were later joined by Finland, France, Germany, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the European Commission — aims to promote responsible production and the safe supply of minerals that are essential for the global economy and national security. It is a strategy that responds to growing concerns about the dependency on critical raw mineral imports, which are essential for the production of high-technology (23).

3.6.

The EESC endorses the objectives of the European Raw Materials Alliance, launched by the EU in 2020, and points out that in its opinion on Sustainable supply chains and decent work in international trade  (24), it highlighted the actions needed to ensure that human rights and decent work objectives do not become residual issues in trade policies and corporate governance, starting with due diligence (on which there is a proposal for an EU directive). This should be strengthened across the whole value chain, as partly provided for in French and German legislation (25).

3.7.

The adoption of policies and programmes for a circular economy involving social partners and civil society — starting at the design stage — could successfully close the loop and create new markets for recycling rare raw materials, and represent huge potential for creating jobs linked to the circular economy for secondary raw materials and recycling. Some studies show a potential 700 000 new jobs by 2030 (26). However, for this to happen, more incentives and commitment are needed at EU and national levels (27).

3.8.

The EESC also calls for monitoring of the effective implementation of the Non-Financial Reporting Directive and for work to be undertaken aimed at moving beyond the voluntary nature of the instruments protecting human and labour rights, in ‘synergy with the international trade and investment agenda’ (28).

3.9.

The EESC notes that, despite the Commission’s great commitment, European countries are lagging far behind and are divided on adopting a common strategy to reduce the supply problems with raw materials, which to date have been contracted out (both mining and refining) to countries that are extremely socially and environmentally irresponsible.

3.10.

A European Parliament study (29) on value chains and synergies with trade policies is the basis of a recently adopted resolution (30), which is a step in the right direction, urging European countries to develop a new industrial policy to address the EU’s strategic autonomy in key sectors in a structural and cohesive way, and without hindering progress towards the green targets under the Green Deal and ensuring labour and social standards throughout the production chain.

3.11.

It will be crucial to build alliances with like-minded governments and strong synergies with democratic governments, and to implement synergies between respect for fundamental labour rights and environmental protection. Today, many governments have committed significant financial resources to addressing these challenges: the USA with its Inflation Reduction Act, India with a range of incentives in the photovoltaic and battery sector, and Japan with an investment plan of around EUR 140 billion. One of the objectives of the EU-US critical raw materials agreement is for rare earths mined or processed in the EU also to be considered to be ‘made in the USA’, in line with the agreement signed between the US and Japan (31).

3.12.

The EESC believes that these bilateral agreements should be approved in the framework of the G7 to create a common strategy on trade in rare earths, with major economies also committed to protecting social and environmental standards in countries where mining and refining take place.

Brussels, 20 September 2023.

The President of the European Economic and Social Committee

Oliver RÖPKE


(1)   Increasingly strategic raw materials, blog of European Commissioner Thierry Breton, 12 June 2022.

(2)   Guidelines for a just transition towards environmentally sustainable economies and societies for all, ILO, ILC, 16.6.2023.

(3)  Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on Corporate Sustainability, Due Diligence and amending Directive (EU) 2019/1937 (OJ C 443, 22.11.2022, p. 81).

(4)   Strategy on decent work in supply chains, ILO, 347th session of the Governing Body, March 2023.

(5)   ‘Batteries are the battlefield — The next geopolitical contest may be over green technology, and China, for now, is poised to win control of those supply chains’ , Foreign Policy, 25 January 2023.

(6)   Guidelines for a just transition towards environmentally sustainable economies and societies for all, ILO, ILC, 16.6.2023.

(7)   Strategy on decent work in supply chains, ILO, 347th session of the Governing Body, March 2023.

(8)   Integrated Strategy on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, ILO, 2017-2023.

(9)   Technical Meeting on Achieving Decent Work in Global Supply Chains, ILO, Geneva, 25-28 February 2020; Thomas, H., Anner, M., ‘ Dissensus and Deadlock in the Evolution of Labour Governance: Global Supply Chains and the International Labour Organization ’ ILO, Journal of Business Ethics 184, 33-49 (2023).

(10)   Minerals for Climate Action: The Mineral Intensity for the Clean Energy Transition, Climate-Smart Mining Facility, 2020.

(11)   U.S. Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries, January 2023.

(12)   Estimation of the Turkish Boron Exportation to Europe.

(13)   Global Value Chains: potential synergies between external trade policy and internal economic initiatives to address the strategic dependencies of the EU, PE 702.582, March 2023.

(14)  https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/natural-resource-governance/myanmars-poisoned-mountains/, 9 August 2022.

(15)  https://www.euronews.com/2023/03/27/europes-raw-materials-rush-does-not-justify-keeping-workers-in-the-dark-about-lithiums-dan

(16)  https://www.politico.eu/article/eu-commission-toxic-or-magic-batteries-industry-freaks-out-over-proposal-to-classify-lithium-as-a-toxin/

(17)  https://www.ft.com/content/c918587e-b7f9-48e7-9389-b9132ec5a14f

(18)   Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981 (No 155), Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 2006 (No 187).

(19)  Proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council establishing a framework for ensuring a secure and sustainable supply of critical raw materials and amending Regulations (EU) No 168/2013, (EU) 2018/858, (EU) 2018/1724 and (EU) 2019/1020 (COM/2023/160 final). The Regulation sets out clear benchmarks for national capacities along the strategic raw materials supply chain and for diversifying the EU’s supply by 2030: for extraction, at least 10 % of the Union’s annual consumption; for processing, at least 40 % of the Union’s annual consumption; and for recycling, at least 15 % of the Union’s annual consumption; with no more than 65 % of the Union’s annual consumption of each strategic raw material at any relevant stage of processing coming from any one single third country.

(20)  https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-019-01678-8

(21)  Regulation (EU) 2017/821 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 17 May 2017 laying down supply chain due diligence obligations for Union importers of tin, tantalum and tungsten, their ores, and gold originating from conflict-affected and high-risk areas (OJ L 130, 19.5.2017, p. 1).

(22)  https://apnews.com/article/technology-forests-myanmar-75df22e8d7431a6757ea4a426fbde94c

(23)  https://www.state.gov/minerals-security-partnership/, 14 June 2022.

(24)  Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on ‘Sustainable supply chains and decent work in international trade’ (exploratory opinion) (OJ C 429, 11.12.2020, p. 197).

(25)  The reference to the 2017 French legislation on due diligence and that recently adopted in Germany in February 2023 is important.

(26)  European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform, Impacts of circular economy policies on the labour market, 2018.

(27)   Securing sustainable raw materials supply in Europe. IndustriAll Europe’s recommendations for ‘Critical Raw Materials Resilience’  — Brussels, 10 June 2021| IndustriAll 129/2021.

(28)  Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on ‘Sustainable supply chains and decent work in international trade’ (exploratory opinion) (OJ C 429, 11.12.2020, p. 197).

(29)   Global Value Chains: potential synergies between external trade policy and internal economic initiatives to address the strategic dependencies of the EU, PE 702.583, March 2023.

(30)  European Parliament resolution of 16 February 2023 on An EU strategy to boost industrial competitiveness, trade and quality jobs, (2023/2513(RSP)) (OJ C 283, 11.8.2023, p. 18).

(31)   Will the scramble for rare earths produce a transatlantic trade accord?, Cecilia Malmström (PIIE), 6 April 2023.


ELI: http://data.europa.eu/eli/C/2023/857/oj

ISSN 1977-091X (electronic edition)


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