Volume 87 Issue 9 | pp. 26-27
Issue Date: March 2, 2009

Word From On High

Top officials chart the future of Europe's chemical industry
Department: Business

IT MUST have been gratifying to the senior European chemical industry executives assembled in Brussels on Feb. 19 to hear Günter Verheugen, vice president of the European Commission, call the chemical industry "a true asset of the European Union."

Reeling from round one of the implementation of a new European chemicals regulatory regime, faced with dismal popular perception ranging from suspicion to downright hostility, and accused of wanton pollution and environmental problems, the industry's executives took heart from the development of a blueprint charting what the industry needs to do to secure its long-term future. But even more, the blueprint lays out in a series of recommendations what the EU and governments of member countries need to do, as well. Only a combination of political and industrial actions, the recommendations maintain, can ensure the competitiveness, and thus the future, of the European chemical industry, which is the largest single regional chemical industry in the world.

The recommendations came in a report by the commission's High Level Group on the Competitiveness of the European Chemicals Industry. The group consists of representatives of the commission, national governments, industry, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). It is one of several established by the commission to chart a long-term strategy for Europe's major industries. It presented its recommendations for action at a conference after its final meeting in Brussels that day.

Many of the recommendations covered R&D and innovation. They included strengthening innovation networks, supporting cross-sector and cross-border clusters, and shaping public policy that supports and encourages start-ups and other small and medium-sized enterprises. Other recommendations touch on energy and feedstock supplies, regulations, educational support, and trade liberalization.

The commission has already posted an 85-page draft report on its website; the final report is due in April. As members of the group agreed, the industry now must put fine words into action and actually implement the recommendations, which were made to support the long-term health of the chemical industry in an increasingly competitive environment.

Opening the conference, Verheugen explained why the commission was bothering with the industry. "We are discussing the future of 1.2 million workers and several hundred thousand enterprises," he said. "The chemical industry is indispensable to Europe if we want to maintain a strong industrial base."

Brought together in September 2007, the high-level group has recently found itself deliberating on long-term actions while everyone is keenly aware of the financial crisis that is enveloping the region and the rest of the world.

"The chemical industry is indispensable to Europe if we want to maintain a strong industrial base."

"We have the crisis now, and short-term measures are needed," noted Jürgen Hambrecht, chairman of BASF, one of the industry members of the group. "But the high-level group really worked on the long term and what is needed for success in the long term."

In energy, for example, "reliable and affordable infrastructure is needed," Hambrecht pointed out. The long-term development of cross-regional pipeline systems for transporting raw materials and finished products will need member-country cooperation and cofunding, he explained.

Such pipelines, Hambrecht added, can help strengthen the region's chemical industry clusters—closely bound groups of facilities operated by one or more companies. Clusters help the industry deliver its products dependably and encourage development of higher value products. Moreover, they also address societal issues such as reducing rail and truck transport, he said.

IN THE CURRENT economic environment, "it is even more important to implement the recommendations without delay," Verheugen said. The commission is charged with preparing a "concrete action plan" to send to the European Parliament and various EU councils of ministers. The commission will also support follow-up meetings to help roll out the plan.

Milan Hovorka, Czech deputy minister for economics, said the first such follow-up event will be a conference in the Czech Republic in mid-April. The purpose of the meeting will be "to present and communicate the results of the high-level group to the wider public," he said.

But even beyond such government-sponsored follow-up, there have been enough pointers to what is needed that some industry measures have already begun, said Gernot Klotz, executive director for research and innovation at the European Chemical Industry Council.

Klotz is manager of the European Technology Platform for Sustainable Chemistry, known as SusChem, which has already begun adapting some of its projects to reflect the high-level group's findings. Examples include the Smart Energy Home project, now under way in various locations around Europe, and the F3 Factory (future, fast, and flexible), set to be launched this year at a location still to be determined. These projects rely upon cooperation among various industries, including chemicals and construction, to bring to fruition research developments not currently in a company's core business areas.

With varying degrees of enthusiasm, delegates agreed that the high-level group process was useful in crystallizing what is needed for the future of the chemical industry in Europe. But the process has only begun, warned Hovorka, the Czech minister. "It was a very challenging but rewarding exercise," he said. "Now, the most difficult part is ahead of us: putting into effect what we have just agreed."

 
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