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EU exit will further harm UK steel: Eurofer

20 Jun 2016 19:53 (+01:00 GMT)
EU exit will further harm UK steel: Eurofer

London, 20 June (Argus) — A vote for the UK to leave the EU in this week's referendum will "represent another blow to the UK steel industry", and have a negative impact on the wider European steel sector, European steel industry association Eurofer said.

In the event of the UK deciding to renounce its membership of the political and economic union "international businesses would reconsider their operational, commercial and investment strategies, which could have serious repercussions for the downstream client sectors of the UK steel industry", Eurofer director general Axel Eggert said.

Eurofer dismisses suggestions that independence from the EU would allow the UK to protect its steel industry from cheap Chinese imports, which have been widely blamed for the fall in global steel prices.

"The UK government's overall position is that anti-dumping tariffs should be kept to a minimum — for both philosophical and practical reasons," Eurofer told Argus. "It is hard to believe that the UK's traditionally more open instincts, compared with their traditionally more protectionist counterparts elsewhere in the EU, would change outside the EU's trade bloc, meaning that deterrent or countervailing tariffs become less, not more, likely," the association said.

Eurofer concedes that it is "possible" the UK could erect faster and more substantial tariff walls against steel imports in the event of an EU exit, but said the country's track record on trade policy and anti-dumping suggests it will "almost certainly not" take any such action.

The association's warning chimes with that of Roy Rickhuss, general secretary for trade union Community, which represents workers at British Steel and Tata Steel's UK operations and last week wrote to all Community members urging them to vote to remain in the EU.

"Community's steel members may hear leave campaigners blame the EU for the current crisis in the industry. But I know for a fact that it is the UK government that is blocking higher tariffs on Chinese steel and it is UK ministers who decided not to intervene to save the SSI-operated Redcar steelworks," Rickhuss said.

"Being part of the EU opens up our market to half a billion consumers and investment worth £66mn ($96.7mn) every day," he said.

But prominent pro-EU exit campaigners, including Conservative party MP Boris Johnson and UK Independence party leader Nigel Farage, insist that the UK steel industry will be better off outside the EU.

"If we vote to remain on 23 June it is the end of the steel industry in this country. Simple as that," Farage said on social media in April, shortly after Tata Steel announced that it was looking to sell its unprofitable UK steel business.

Johnson called on steelworkers to vote for an EU exit earlier this month, saying that it was "mad" that the UK could not cut energy costs for the steel industry "because of EU rules".

But Eurofer refutes claims that the EU is to blame for the difficulties facing UK steelmakers. "UK steel is globally competitive and is, instead, held back by high energy prices and business rates, which are largely due to UK domestic policy, and the recent — that is, until the referendum date became public — strength of the British pound," Eurofer told Argus.

"The UK in Europe has access to a single market of 500mn consumers who take in two-thirds of its steel exports. If easy access to this market is cut off, then the UK steel industry, as well as that of its downstream users and value chains, could be expected to suffer."

Uncertainty over which way the UK will vote has led to significant volatility in currency markets and reports of some trade and corporate deals being delayed until after the vote. The latest opinion polls, including one by the international market research firm YouGov, over the weekend showed the "remain" campaign pulling slightly ahead of the "leave" group, prompting a sharp sterling rally in currency trading today.

Meanwhile the value of the euro has climbed against the US dollar, the Japanese yen and the Swiss franc, according to analysis by Canadian foreign exchange services company XE.