Exclusive: EU must engage in lithium standards or lose to China, EU's Breton says

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - EU industry chief Thierry Breton has urged EU governments to be more active in setting global standards for ultralight battery metal lithium, key to many strategic industries and electric cars, or cede technological advantage to China.

FILE PHOTO: European Union Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton holds a video news conference, to present a "White Paper" to better arm the EU against unfair competition from heavily subsidised foreign companies, at the European Commission in Brussels, Belgium June 17, 2020. Kenzo Tribouillard/Pool via REUTERS

Breton's warning underlines the European Commission's concern as China seeks to increase its influence in setting standards for a metal crucial to the bloc's electric car and green energy ambitions, involving major companies such as Volkswagen VOWG_p.DE, PSA PEUP.PA and Siemens SIEGn.DE.

His warning comes ahead of a June 24-25 vote by the International Organisation for Standardisation’s (ISO) technical management board on a Chinese proposal to set up a committee on lithium standards. China has proposed itself as the secretariat.

The standards would cover lithium mining, extraction, testing, analysis and conversion to useful lithium compounds, such as for use in lithium-ion batteries.

“The EU’s key trading partners are very active in developing international standards in key markets to protect and increase their competitive advantage,” Breton said in a letter to industry ministers in the 27 EU countries and seen by Reuters.

“We need to be vigilant about such processes which can, without the right engagement, unintentionally harm our economic competitiveness and technological leadership,” he said.

“It is in our interest to give European companies a competitive advantage by making sure that international standards are in line with ours – whether they are ready or in the making,” Breton said.

France and Germany last month agreed jointly to invest up to 6 billion euros ($6.7 billion) to make electric vehicle batteries, taking on the United States and China.

Breton said the Commission would ask the European Committee for Standardization (CEN) and the European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization (CENELEC) to monitor work on new lithium standards.

Acknowledged as the 21st century energy metal, lithium can be used in applications including glass, petrochemical, metallurgy and in the battery, energy, aerospace and nuclear industries.

Reporting by Foo Yun Chee; editing by Philip Blenkinsop