Letter: Europe's cosseted steel industry

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The Independent Online
Sir: Those who call for a more interventionist, government-led 'industrial strategy' should consider that years of cosseting Europe's national champion steel producers - sanctioned and often abetted by the European Commission - has left the industry a muddled mess of unproductive overcapacity. This policy has penalised not only efficient producers, such as British Steel, and taxpayers who foot the bills, but also steel consumers, such as the motor industry, who have had to pay above world prices for steel as a result of the Commission's policy of protecting uncompetitive producers by restricting non-EC imports.

The most disgraceful example of this was the imposition of spurious 'dumping' duties on low-cost steel from Eastern Europe on the grounds that this steel had been subsidised in the past. So European steel-makers, whose subsidies make any in the Czech Republic or Poland pale into insignificance, were protected from 'unfair competition', leaving consumers to foot the bill in higher prices.

This market fixing by the Commission makes its accusation that British Steel has damaged consumers by fixing prices somewhat ironic. But Labour should rein in its glee at the Government's obvious discomfort over the steel issue. After all, the disastrous beggar- my-neighbour 'industrial policy' - which has led to the mess in which the European steel industry finds itself - is very close to the type of interventionism habitually demanded by Labour spokesmen; while their praise of British Steel's efficiency should be tempered by the memory that they opposed the admittedly tough policies which transformed the company from the world's largest loss-maker.

The moral to draw from steel is surely that while leaving industrial decisions to markets may not produce perfect results, they are a great deal less imperfect than the outcome of those decisions made by politicians and bureaucrats.

Yours faithfully,

PHILLIP OPPENHEIM

MP for Amber Valley

House of Commons

London, SW1

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