|Build Your Dreams
Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Union's Commission, says Europe is flooded with cheap subsidized Chinese electric vehicles (EV), and she sees it as her sacred duty to "protect" European carmakers. She said Europe should not allow car makers to go the way of solar panel makers, who lost to Chinese competition.
First of all, this is not always true: some European makers of solar panels, the best, are thriving. Meyer Burger, a German solar panel manufacturer, has seen its share price increase by more than 500% in the past year. Siltronic, a German silicon wafer manufacturer, has also seen its share price increase significantly in the past year. REC Solar, a Norwegian solar panel manufacturer, has announced plans to expand its production capacity by more than 80% in the next two years. SolarPower Europe, the European solar industry association, has forecast that solar installations in Europe will grow by 30% in 2023.
So the premise is wrong. Be that as it may, she has started an investigation. That will teach the sneaky Chinese. Let's see where that leads us. The EU and China are both members of the WTO, so that would be the place to settle any problem.
In the meantime, it is remarkable to note that European car makers don't want to be "protected" by von der Leyen! The CEOs of both Volkswagen and Stellantis said this investigation is a bad idea, it would stifle both trade and the green transition. It would also hurt profits for these two European giants of car making. That is because, instead of whining, VW and Stellantis are a step ahead of the Commission and have started new joint ventures to make EVs in China. And they sell lots of cars to the Chinese market and other markets in Asia, as well as importing them back to Europe.
Another detail that may be worth recalling is that the biggest EV producer in China is BYD, where Warren Buffet is a major investor. (Just think of the name, BYD stands for "Build Your Dreams", and compare it with "People's Car", a slogan invented by the National Socialists in the 1930s.) The biggest exporter of EV made in China to Europe is Elon Musk's Tesla. So two Americans are among the biggest "culprits" of "cheap EVs made in China" that von der Leyen argues are unfairly flooding the European market. Is she going to take this up with Washington?
By the way, EVs made in China have "flooded" the market with a share of 8%, not insignificant but hardly a flood, though that number is growing.
Speaking of numbers, some so-called experts (W. Cutler, Financial Times, 2 October 2023) accuse China of knowingly producing more EVs than they need so they can flood Europe with the excess production, which this expert estimates is the suspiciously round number of 10 million cars. Let's assume it is true. Since when producing more than you need of something is a bad thing? All countries produce more than they need of some things, and export the surplus. And all countries produce less than they need of some other things, and import the rest. It's called TRADE, it's good, it widens choice, it lowers prices for consumers, it increases the efficient use of resources, it creates jobs.
Ah but China is subsidizing production, says von der Leyen, and since "we don't accept state subsidies inside the EU we cannot accept them from outside". Excuse me? The EU benefited a lot from reducing subsidies but tons of internal market-distorting subsidies remain in the books.
Examples of European excess production and subsidies are countless. Germany has produced more cars than Germans can drive for over one hundred years, and exported the surplus. Italy produces more wine than we can drink and sells the rest abroad. The UK, whose car industry was largely bankrupt and has been saved by foreign - including Chinese - capital, now exports four out of five cars it manufactures, and so what? Both the EU and the US produce more grossly subsidized airplanes than they will ever be able to fly, and China buys all of its airliners from them, for now at least. France produces far more heavily subsidized cheese than the French can digest, and exports the surplus. And so on and so forth, the list could fill a small book. So why shouldn't China produce more cars than it needs and subsidize some of that production, especially in a nascent industry like EV?
And you know what? I write this from China and have seen and been driven in Chinese EVs made by Guangzhou Auto, Geely, BYD, and others. They are sleek, smart, beautiful, efficient (ranges over 500km are becoming common), hypertech, and user friendly. So I am not surprised they are selling like hot cakes.
On the other hand, when I went to buy my Audi in London last year the saleswoman told me: you can choose gas, diesel or electric, the price and the waiting time for delivery are similar, but I advise against our electric, we are not there yet. (By the way, she also said the least polluting version was the diesel version, but politicians have demonized diesel so that no one wants them any more, but that's another story.) And you know where Audi made my car? Germany? Nope. Slovakia, can you guess why?
Maybe Europe will make fewer cars in the future. It will make less of many things. But another basic lesson in economics is that the richer a country the less it "makes" in terms of tangible goods and the more it produces in the service sector. By far the largest numbers of new jobs in Europe these days are created in the service sector, not in manufacturing.
These are basic economic principles, it is hard to believe von der Leyen, or at least her capable Commission staff, are not aware of them. Then why the bluster? Perhaps because these days protectionism gets votes, especially populist votes, and next year the Commission's President job is up for grabs. Sad days ahead for those of us who believe in the potential of an open and competitive united Europe. It's going to remain a dream we can not build.