Sometimes the driest debates lead to the hottest arguments. That paradox was on full display on May 12th when the European Parliament set out to air its grievances with China’s pretense of receiving Market Economy Status (MES) by the end of the year.
In a non-legislative resolution backed by 546 MEPs, the Parliament sent out a strong signal that it would use a “non-standard methodology” in treating China’s exports to the EU as long as Beijing doesn’t satisfy the five basic criteria required to qualify as a market economy. Even if the EP’s resolution carries no legal value in and of itself, China’s reaction was swift, with the Foreign Minister accusing the EU of breaking its WTO promises, and China’s former chief WTO negotiator Long Yongtu saying the resolution is protectionist and goes against globalization.
However, both Chinese officials are wrong – and while the European Parliament has too often succumbed to populist temptation or petty power plays in its institutional tug-of-war with the other European institutions, the majority of MEPs were clearly in the right.
The first issue that needs explaining is what this rather technical brouhaha is all about. Essentially, the MES China covets would be the ultimate status symbol for the leadership as it would bestow recognition upon the country that it is playing according to market-rules – and that by extension the Party’s third way, “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” philosophy has paid off. On the practical side, the MES enhances the access of Chinese exports to third countries, including the European Union, and would make it far harder for regulators to slap China with anti-dumping tariffs and other retaliatory trade measures. With the European bloc beset by grave uncertainties in the steel and aluminum sector, which have suffered after world prices were driven down by unfair Chinese overproduction, concerns about relaxing protective levies have spiked.
Indeed, according to the European Commission, China produces 325 million metric tons of excess steel a year, or twice Europe’s entire production. This production spree has put at risks tens of thousands of jobs across the continent, most poignantly the 15,000 British jobs that Tata Steel will axe if it cannot sell its UK assets this year. Trade and worker unions alike have been turning the screws on the Brussels bureaucrats and have threatened with massive strikes if their industry isn’t protected from China’s avalanche of underpriced steel.
In this tense context, it’s obvious why the European Parliament caved in. But putting aside the pressures coming from the street, the EP’s justification was nevertheless sound: China is very far off from respecting the minimum standards for a market economy, as they are set out under European law. Concluding otherwise would be not just a probable death sentence for large swathes of Europe’s industrial production, but also in blatant contradiction of European regulations.
The EU’s five criteria are concerned with a) the nature and frequency of governmental intervention in the decision-making process of companies, b) the lack of government distortions in “the operation of enterprises linked to privatization;” c) the use of non-discriminatory, transparent company laws; d) an effective, transparent legal system protecting property rights; e) and a “genuine financial sector which operates independently from the state.” According to a 2009 paper, China had fulfilled only one criteria – the one linked to privatizations – with a lot more ground to cover for the remaining four.
Indeed, as recently as April, the European Commission expressed its deep concerns with China’s overbearing state in handling the affairs of state owned companies (SOEs), when it investigated a proposed joint venture between China General Nuclear Power Corporation and EDF. After regulators concluded that Chinese SOEs involved in the energy sector have no independent decision making powers whatsoever, the EC took the unprecedented step of analyzing the market impact of the deal by looking at the entire corpus of SOEs involved.
This decision is perhaps the most obvious example of China’s total disregard for market rules as it sets in stone the fact that 45 of the Fortune 500 companies, are under the direct control of the Chinese Communist Party with a combined worth of $4.5 trillion. The EC’s reasoning nullifies therefore any semblance of corporate independence in the Middle Kingdom and provides fodder to those arguing that the Chinese state is directly responsible for the overcapacity issues in the steel industry for example.
It is widely expected that the Commission’s reasoning will be rehashed in the upcoming review of yet another Chinese deal involving one of the SOEs from the energy sector – the proposed tie up between Syngenta and ChemChina, Beijing’s largest outbound investment to date, clocking in at $43 billion. The deal is already strained by delays and subdued market expectations, insofar that any further hand wringing stemming from regulatory concerns could easily derail ChemChina’s hopes of becoming the world’s largest agro giant.
Rebuffing critics, the European Parliament took the only course of action that was available to it and sent a strong message that China is simply not prepared to join the ranks of other market economies. At this point, even if the political will to award China MES exists in certain European quarters, the Parliament’s resounding “no” has undoubtedly made them reconsider.
A bio-based, reuse economy can feed the world and save the planet
Transforming pineapple skins into product packaging or using potato peels for fuel may sound far-fetched, but such innovations are gaining traction as it becomes clear that an economy based on cultivation and use of biomass can help tackle pollution and climate change, the United Nations agriculture agency said on Friday.
A sustainable bioeconomy, which uses biomass – organic materials, such as plants and animals and fish – as opposed to fossil resources to produce food and non-food goods “is foremost about nature and the people who take care of and produce biomass,” a senior UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) official said at the 2018 Global Bioeconomy Summit in Berlin, Germany.
This means family farmers, forest people and fishers, who are also “holders of important knowledge on how to manage natural resources in a sustainable way,” she explained.
Maria Helena Semedo, FAO Deputy Director-General for Climate and Natural Resources, stressed how the agency not only works with member States and other partners across the conventional bioeconomy sectors – agriculture, forestry and fisheries – but also relevant technologies, such as biotechnology and information technology to serve agricultural sectors.
“We must foster internationally-coordinated efforts and ensure multi-stakeholder engagement at local, national and global levels,” she said, noting that this requires measurable targets, means to fulfil them and cost-effective ways to measure progress.
With innovation playing a key role in the bio sector, she said, all the knowledge – traditional and new – should be equally shared and supported.
Feeding the world, saving the planet
Although there is enough food being produced to feed the planet, often due to a lack of access, estimates show that some 815 million people are chronically undernourished.
“Bioeconomy can improve access to food, such as through additional income from the sale of bio-products,” said Ms. Semedo.
She also noted its potential contribution to addressing climate change, albeit with a warning against oversimplification.
“Just because a product is bio does not mean it is good for climate change, it depends on how it is produced, and in particular on much and what type of energy is used in the process,” she explained.
FAO has a longstanding and wide experience in supporting family farmers and other small-scale biomass producers and businesses.
Ms. Semedo, told the summit that with the support of Germany, FAO, together with an international working group, is currently developing sustainable bioeconomy guidelines.
Some 25 cases from around the world have already been identified to serve as successful bioeconomy examples to develop good practices.
A group of women fishers in Zanzibar are producing cosmetics from algae – opening up a whole new market with sought-after niche products; in Malaysia, a Government programme supports community-based bioeconomy; and in Colombia, a community is transforming pineapple skins into biodegradable packaging and honey into royal jelly – and these are just a few examples of a bioeconomy in action.
“Together, let’s harness the development for sustainable bioeconomy for all and leave no one behind,” concluded Ms. Semedo.
Belarus: Strengthening Foundations for Sustainable Recovery
The speed of economic recovery has accelerated in early 2018, but the foundations for solid growth need to be strengthened, says the latest World Bank Economic Update on Belarus.
The economic outlook remains challenging due to external financing needs and unaddressed domestic structural bottlenecks. Improved household consumption and investment activity, along with a gradual increase in exports, will help the economy to grow, but unlikely above three percent per annum over the medium term.
“The only way for ordinary Belarusians to have better incomes in the long run is to increase productivity, which requires structural change. While macroeconomic adjustment has brought stability, only structural change will bring solid growth to the country,” said Alex Kremer, World Bank Country Manager for Belarus. “Inflation has hit a record low in Belarus, driving the costs of domestic borrowing down. However, real wages are now again outpacing productivity, with the risks of worsening cost competitiveness and generating cost-push inflation.”
A Special Topic Note of the World Bank Economic Update follows the findings of the latest World Bank report, The Changing Wealth of Nations 2018, which measures national wealth, composed of produced, natural, and human capital, and net foreign assets. Economic development comes from a country’s wealth, especially from human capital – skills and knowledge.
“Belarus has a good composition of wealth for an upper middle-income country. The per capita level of human capital exceeds both Moldova and Ukraine. However, the accumulation of physical capital has coincided with a deterioration in the country’s net foreign asset position,” noted Kiryl Haiduk, World Bank Economist. “Belarus needs to rely less on foreign borrowing and strengthen the domestic financial system, export more, and strengthen economic institutions that improve the efficiency of available physical and human capital.”
Since the Republic of Belarus joined the World Bank in 1992, lending commitments to the country have totaled US$1.7 billion. In addition, grant financing totaling US$31 million has been provided, including to programs involving civil society partners. The active investment lending portfolio financed by the World Bank in Belarus includes eight operations totaling US$790 million.
Economic Growth in Africa Rebounds, But Not Fast Enough
Sub-Saharan Africa’s growth is projected to reach 3.1 percent in 2018, and to average 3.6 percent in 2019–20, says Africa’s Pulse, a bi-annual analysis of the state of African economies conducted by the World Bank, released today.
The growth forecasts are premised on expectations that oil and metals prices will remain stable, and that governments in the region will implement reforms to address macroeconomic imbalances and boost investment.
“Growth has rebounded in Sub-Saharan Africa, but not fast enough. We are still far from pre-crisis growth levels,” said Albert G. Zeufack, World Bank Chief Economist for the Africa Region. “African Governments must speed up and deepen macroeconomic and structural reforms to achieve high and sustained levels of growth.”
The moderate pace of economic expansion reflects the gradual pick-up in growth in the region’s three largest economies, Nigeria, Angola and South Africa. Elsewhere, economic activity will pick up in some metals exporters, as mining production and investment rise. Among non-resource intensive countries, solid growth, supported by infrastructure investment, will continue in the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU), led by Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal. Growth prospects have strengthened in most of East Africa, owing to improving agriculture sector growth following droughts and a rebound in private sector credit growth; in Ethiopia, growth will remain high, as government-led infrastructure investment continues.
“For many African countries, the economic recovery is vulnerable to fluctuations in commodity prices and production,” said Punam Chuhan-Pole, World Bank Lead Economist and the author of the report. “This underscores the need for countries to build resilience by pushing diversification strategies to the top of the policy agenda.”
Public debt relative to GDP is rising in the region, and the composition of debt has changed, as countries have shifted away from traditional concessional sources of financing toward more market-based ones. Higher debt burdens and the increasing exposure to market risks raise concerns about debt sustainability: 18 countries were classified at high-risk of debt distress in March 2018, compared with eight in 2013.
“By fully embracing technology and leveraging innovation, Africa can boost productivity across and within sectors, and accelerate growth,” said Zeufack.
This issue of Africa’s Pulse has a special focus on the role of innovation in accelerating electrification in Sub-Saharan Africa, and its implications of achieving inclusive economic growth and poverty reduction. The report finds that achieving universal electrification in Sub-Saharan Africa will require a combination of solutions involving the national grid, as well as “mini-grids” and “micro-grids” serving small concentrations of electricity users, and off-grid home-scale systems. Improving regulation of the electricity sector and better management of utilities remain key to success.
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