Europe’s jobs are on the line. The car’s future is electric whether we like it or not

William Todts — February 25, 2021

When Nissan CEO Makoto Uchida announced the closure of its Barcelona plant it came as no surprise. Protestors burned tyres and roads were blocked, but to no avail. Around 3,000 workers, and thousands of others indirectly linked to the car plant, will be out of work by December. Or so they thought. It has just been announced that the Barcelona plant may be set for a second life as a battery factory.

The auto industry has had a pretty good decade with employment in the sector totalling 3.7 million in 2019, up 16% compared to 2009. More recently, overcapacity, trade frictions, the Covid crisis and a lack of semiconductors have led to production cuts and tens of thousands of jobs being axed. In the background automation continues, slowly reducing the need for human labour in manufacturing. And then there’s electrification. As we progress towards a completely electric new car fleet, jobs in engine making will gradually disappear. Combined, this is enough to keep auto workers up at night.

Environmentalists should be concerned about this, too. For most people work is not just how they earn a living. It is so much more. It is a source of dignity and pride. It gives meaning to our lives and is the bedrock of the communities we all live in. Environmentalists can’t solve the economic crisis, nor are we well placed to help manage automation. But we are the main advocates for electrification. And so we owe it to auto workers to help come up with answers.

Europe currently dominates the global combustion engine car industry. So, is it natural, as some argue, that we should try and slow down the transition to electric vehicles? Can’t we just go on making diesel and petrol cars as before? No. As John F. Kennedy said “the new frontier is here, whether we seek it or not”. If we allow Chinese or Californian companies the opportunity to pace ahead we are doomed. Just look at the semiconductor crisis. We lost the technology race. Now all the factories and jobs are in Asia.

So, if we cannot and should not stop the transition, we must own it. The best way to secure future prosperity, jobs and strategic autonomy is to have supply chains centred in Europe with EU car plants exporting to the rest of the world.

How do we achieve this? 

First, we need to be clear: Europe needs to aim for 100% emission-free car sales and to say goodbye, once and for all, to the internal combustion engine. The 2035 date set in the UK and California strikes the right balance between ambition and the need to give time to companies, workers and governments to adapt. But we can’t just sit on our hands until then. Nor can we afford to delay the transition by relying on a myth that biofuels and electrofuels will make engines clean. The EU car CO2 law that entered into force in 2020 has led to an electric car boom, with sales of plug-ins reaching over 10%, and nearly €100 billion being invested in electromobility in Europe. We need to continue on this path.

Second, we need to help consumers and industry go electric. Charging must become as ubiquitous and convenient as refueling gasoline. Taxes should be adapted to support clean tech, not oil and engines. We also have to be smart. We’ll never be the cheapest, but we can be the best and the greenest. Standards to reward greener batteries are a good example of what is needed.

But we must also be honest. Even if we win the technology race, not every assembly line worker will become a charging point installer or battery chemist. The overall economic impact will be positive, but some regions will be very badly affected. To help them, we’ll need to support new economic activity, to retrain workers and, yes, pay for unemployment schemes. For this you need money. That’s why we propose the creation of an automotive transition fund, worth tens of billions.

Auto workers understand the world is changing. The combination of a bold strategy to dominate the electric vehicle industry, coupled with generous support for workers in transition, offers our best chance of success. There is a future for automaking in Catalonia and all the other auto regions of Europe. But that future is electric.

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