Solar power trade war heats up

Angela Merkel steps in to quell fears over EU China trade links.

The sun doesn’t always shine on EU China trade links- German Chancellor Angela Merkel has had to step in to quell fears of an impending trade war over the price of imported solar panels from China.

The European Commission is expected to decide by 5th June whether or not to impose an antidumping tariff of 47 per cent on the import of Chinese solar panels, after several European manufacturers have argued that China puts them at a disadvantage by unfairly subsiding its solar panel manufacturers.

With Chinese exports of solar panels worth 21bn euros a year, the stakes are extremely high and has forced Angela Merkel to step in to ensure the import tariff doesn’t spark a trade war. She and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang have begun talks during his first overseas tour to try and resolve the EU’s largest ever trade dispute.

“We should very intensely use the next six months, and Germany will do everything to ensure that the talks will really advance," explained Merkel, with Mr Li adding;

“(Import tariffs) will not only harm jobs in China, as well as development in the affected industries, but it will also affect development and endanger industry in Europe".

The Chinese solar power industry has grown vastly over the past five years, with the country’s solar panel manufacturers grabbing 80 per cent of the global market at the expense of US and European companies.

Analysts fear that such rapid expansion in the solar industry in China will lead to a period of rationalisation if foreign export markets dry up. The US already imposed import anti-subsidy duties of 4 per cent in March, followed by antidumping duties of 31 per cent in May.

This has pushed Suntech Power, China and the world’s largest producer of solar panels to the brink. Despite having sold more than 13m solar panels around the world, in March the company announced it had defaulted on a $541m bond payment, with the state having to step in to keep things afloat. LDK Solar has also ran into trouble, having to sell a 20 per cent stake to state-run Hen Rui Xin Energy.

The actions of the American Ministry of Commerce led to China hitting back by announcing antidumping and anti-subsidy investigations into imports of solar-grade polysilicon from the US. Many fear that if the European Commission decides to push ahead with its tariffs, China will similarly retaliate again, leading to much internal disagreement between EU members over the proposed tariffs.

An unnamed source told the AFP agency that 17 member states "have come out in opposition" of imposing Chinese solar tariffs, including the UK and Germany, while others such as Italy and France are in favour.

These latest developments closely mirror the situation in China’s wind energy industry, which has seen exponential growth over the past decade, but hides a number of deep-seated problems. After years of double-digit growth things are slowing down for Chinese wind manufacturers. In December, the US Commerce Department set import duties for Chinese wind towers at over 50 per cent, again depriving manufacturers of a key export market and throwing the industry into jeopardy.

The domestic wind market is incapable of supplying enough demand to meet the country’s massive manufacturing overcapacity. Despite impressive headline figures of 62.4 gigawatts of installed capacity by the end of 2011, China’s growth in wind power is somewhat misleading. Some 10bn kilowatt-hours of electricity produced by wind turbines in the country could not be accepted by the grid last year because of oversupply, plus a quarter of the installed capacity is not yet even grid connected, according to Greenpeace. As a result, industry analysts expect many of the smaller manufacturers not to survive as the industry tries to balance supply and demand, despite the government subsidies that have helped spur growth until now.

With similar accusations of heavy state subsidies ongoing in several other industry, most notably telecoms, the sun won’t set on this trade war for some time yet

A solar field in China. Photograph: Getty Images

Mark Brierley is a group editor at Global Trade Media

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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.