Securing Europe's supply of critical raw materials: The material nature of the EU's strategic goals
9 March 2023
Over the past centuries, humanity has used an increasing share of the known elements to foster technological innovation, in particular metals. Today, a wide range of key technologies across all industries, from chips to batteries, medical imaging to tanks, rely on the unique physical properties of some specific critical raw materials (CRMs). Demand for CRMs is projected to skyrocket in the coming years. However, as the transition to 'net-zero' and the digital age is particularly materials-intensive, it remains uncertain whether supply will keep up with the expected needs. Moreover, recent pledges for higher defence spending will also require more CRMs. The EU's ambition to become a climate-neutral economy by 2050, and its ability to sustain the green and digital transitions and achieve strategic autonomy, all rely heavily on reliable, secure and resilient access to CRMs. CRM supply chains are global, complex, and fragile, which makes them vulnerable to a wide range of risks, including those linked to geopolitical tensions. The supply of CRMs is often more concentrated than that of fossil fuels. Furthermore, the EU's reliance on imports of CRMs is extremely high, sometimes reaching 100 % (e.g. for rare earth elements – REEs). The EU's strategic dependency in the supply of REEs is a notable example of the challenges linked to the EU's over-dependence on supply chains dominated by third countries. Over the past few years, to avoid replacing its dependency over fossil fuels by another, on CRMs, the EU has reviewed all relevant policies to foster its security of supply, mixing industrial, research and trade policies with international partnerships. It is expected to go further with the announced proposal for a CRM act. Possible measures that could help the EU tackle these challenges include diversifying CRM primary sourcing; promoting a fully circular approach to CRM use; and implementing contingency planning, mitigating and emergency measures, including stockpiling. The European Parliament has promoted an integrated approach throughout the CRM value chain under a European strategy for CRMs, to increase the EU's supply. It has recently emphasised that a new European Sovereignty Fund should increase European investment in the raw materials sector.