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Von der Leyen talks raw materials, Ukraine in Canada, US

March 6, 2023

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is visiting Canada and the United States, eyeing new supplies of critical raw materials and assurances on long-term backing for Ukraine.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (right) and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen arrive for a welcoming ceremony on Parliament Hill in Ottawa
Von der Leyen (left) is set to meet with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on TuesdayImage: DAVE CHAN/AFP/Getty Images

European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has embarked on a trans-Atlantic charm offensive as Brussels brews up new legislation to shore up raw material supplies and secure the future of its green technology industries. After a year of tight coordination on Russia's war in Ukraine, the head of the European Union's executive body is in Canada to meet with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and then head to the United States, where she is expected to hold talks with President Joe Biden on Friday.

On Tuesday, von der Leyen and Trudeau will visit a Canadian Armed Forces base and tour a clean-tech company, before the EU chief delivers an address to the Canadian Parliament. 

With the fallout of the war in Ukraine felt across the European Union, the bloc is racing to end fossil fuel reliance on Moscow and ramp up production of homegrown renewable energy. But that will require more access to critical minerals and raw materials like lithium, cobalt, or rare earth metals — and that is where Washington and Ottawa could come in.

Lithium — A crucial raw material

EU looks west in quest for critical raw materials

These materials are crucial for manufacturing solar panels, wind turbines, electric cars, smartphones, and more — and geologist Anouke Borst says Europe is going to need "a lot more of them."

"Demand for lithium might increase forty-fold by 2050 if we are to follow all the Paris [climate] agreements," she told DW.

But Borst says these crucial elements can be hard to access. "For the rare earth elements, it's largely because China is the largest producer, and they control the entire processing chain," she said. Aware of this dependence, Brussels wants to diversify supply chains away from Beijing. 

Though there are rare earth deposits in Europe, Borst thinks the EU will "stay dependent on imports" because of opposition to mining on environmental grounds. 

Sam Ayoub of the independent Canada Europe Economic Chamber says mineral-rich Ottawa is now "starting to be a natural answer and solution for the European Union" in its raw materials quest "because of the size of the country and the amount of natural resources that we have." Geologist Anouk Borst says Canada's history of mining also means it is more likely for a material deposit discovery there to lead to future extraction.

The EU and Canada already inked a raw materials partnership in 2021 and last year, German automakers Volkswagen and Mercedes Benz signed deals on access to Canadian minerals.

Local environmental groups push back against mining plans

Still, expansion of mining activities may face local complaints. Toronto-based activist group "Mining Injustice Solidarity Network" accuse Canadian mining firms of greenwashing. "Communities across the globe are fighting back to protect their water, their lands, and their livelihoods from the impacts of mining — refusing to become sacrifice zones while investors get rich," the organization writes on its website. 

Canada's Minister of Natural Resources Jonathan Wilkinson insists raw materials can be sourced sustainability. In a January news release announcing approval to a new lithium mine with hundreds of sustainability conditions attached, he said: "The government is committed to making Canada the global supplier of choice for sustainably and responsibly sourced critical minerals, from exploration and extraction, to manufacturing and recycling, while also fostering mutually beneficial relationships between industry and Indigenous Peoples."

Electric vehicle charging
Washington's Inflation Reduction Act offers subsidies for electric car manufacturers in the U.S.Image: Torsten Sukrow/SULUPRESS.DE/picture alliance

Could US green policies push trans-Atlantic unity into the red?

In January, von der Leyen aired the idea of a "Critical Raw Materials Club" with "like-minded partners" — something the EU Commission chief may try to formalize this week.

But bones of contention cloud the backdrop of von der Leyen's planned meeting with President Joe Biden. Brussels is not impressed by landmark US legislation set to offer hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies and support for domestically manufactured clean technology like electric cars. The EU fears this massive investment will disadvantage EU firms and tempt them to relocate across the Atlantic.

"This is a protectionist piece of legislation, and it's heavily biased in favor of domestic production," David Kleimann, a trade law expert and visiting fellow with Brussels-based think tank Bruegel, told DW. The US refutes those accusations.

The US is not expected to U-turn on its legislation based on European complaints, but Kleimann thinks von der Leyen will likely push for some creative interpretations of the text to soften the potential blow. One loophole eyed by Brussels would allow EU exporters to qualify for some US subsidies in areas like battery components.

But Kleimann says it's "unclear" whether this will bring tangible benefits to European industries. "I think at this stage, we're looking at political deliverables," he said.

He believes the EU wants to avoid public clashes with the Biden administration, despite ongoing disagreements. Both sides say they do not want a trans-Atlantic trade war, especially while an actual war is raging on the European continent.

MG-3 munition
EU member states are planning joint purchases of ammunition for UkraineImage: Björn Trotzki/IMAGO

Will the trans-Atlantic unity on Ukraine support hold out?

Forging, maintaining, and financing a response to the war in Ukraine will be high on the leaders' agendas. Analyst Jacob Kirkegaard of the US think tank German Marshall Fund (GMF) says the US will likely welcome EU plans to pool purchases of ammunition for Ukraine.

Some fear a possible 2024 comeback of former US President Donald Trump could derail the carefully crafted trans-Atlantic approach to Ukraine aid.  But Kirkegaard is not too concerned. "There is a very clear, crystallizing, strong disconnect between the senior Republicans in Congress and Trump," he told DW.

"Sure, if Trump were to win the presidency it would be a huge political bonus for Putin — don't get me wrong — but would it stop American weapons supplies to Ukraine or block all financial aid? No, I don't think so."

Kirkegaard says the real political elephant in the room will be China. Washington believes Beijing may be considering supplying Moscow with lethal support for its war-waging in Ukraine — something China fiercely refutes.

Biden may seek assurances that Brussels would take tough action if China were to help arm Russia. "I'm sure that they would want, behind closed doors, to go into a lot more detail about what those sanctions or EU actions against China might be," Kirkegaard said.

On the other hand, von der Leyen may ask for clarity on sources backing up Washington's concerns about Beijing. In February, the EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said there was "no evidence" China was arming Russia, though he added: "We have to remain vigilant."

Edited by: Maren Sass