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New Atlanticist June 12, 2024

Europe is gearing up to hit Chinese EVs with new tariffs. Here’s why.

By Atlantic Council experts

The tariff race is picking up speed. On Wednesday, the European Commission proposed new tariffs on China-made electric vehicles (EVs) of up to 38.1 percent starting in July. An ongoing European Union (EU) investigation concluded that Chinese automakers such as BYD benefit from unfair subsidization that is “causing a threat of economic injury” to European companies. The news comes after US President Joe Biden announced tariffs of up to 100 percent on Chinese EVs in May. Below, Atlantic Council experts shift into high gear to explain what this all means.

By putting in place additional tariffs of up to 38.1 percent (much higher than the anticipated 15-30 percent), the Commission has shown its commitment to aggressively protecting the EU auto industry from a massive increase in Chinese EV imports. By setting these countervailing tariffs lower than the United States’ 100 percent and by applying rates differentially based on firm-specific levels of Chinese subsidization, production sites within the EU, and cooperation with the Commission, the EU is also communicating that its primary goal with these tariffs is to level the playing field rather than completely wall the single market off from Chinese EV imports.

The size of these tariffs indicate that the French have more influence than the Germans in EU trade policy, at least for now. French carmakers, in contrast to German auto brands, are less dependent on the Chinese market and more willing to use tariff policy to protect local production capacity. Indeed, the tariffs and their political fallout reflect a split between EU member states with deep ties to China’s car industry, such as Germany, Sweden, and Hungary, and member states that view China as more of a threat than an opportunity, such as France and Italy.

Sarah Bauerle Danzman is a resident senior fellow in the GeoEconomics Center’s Economic Statecraft Initiative.

The European Commission unveiled its higher-than-expected countervailing tariffs on some EVs imported from China. With this move, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s economic security agenda has won out against even a last-minute push by Germany to soften the decision. Concerns and disappointment have already echoed from German industry, criticizing the Commission’s “Trumpian protectionist” decision and denouncing detrimental economic consequences for Germany’s automotive industry. However, apart from the howls of opposition from some large German auto and chemical actors, almost 70 percent of German industries support protective measures against China’s unfair trade practices and market distortion. This fracture between Germany’s Mittelstand and major global players (such as Volkswagen, Siemens, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, BASF, and Bayer) reflects the underlying contrast between the EU’s need to protect its industries against Chinese overcapacity versus certain export-dependent sectors within the European bloc. 

With a strong chance of von der Leyen leading the Commission for the next five years and an increasingly protectionist-oriented global economy, it will be interesting to watch who catches up with whom. Will von der Leyen’s ambitious economic security agenda that echoes Washington’s tougher stance on China be reined in by export-dependent member states such as Germany? Or will Berlin come to a realization that the EU has to address key vulnerabilities vis-à-vis Beijing? This is only the opening salvo in a longer-term policy debate. 

Jörn Fleck is the senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center.

Jacopo Pastorelli is a program assistant in the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center.

In order to not affect the European Parliament election campaign, the European Commission waited to announce its decision to impose additional tariffs on Chinese EVs. But now that the election is over, it can finally move. It is indeed high time for the EU to react to China’s subsidized industrial overcapacities. The United States and other countries, such as Turkey, had already announced additional tariffs on Chinese EVs, thereby raising the pressure on the EU, because China could further divert its exports to Europe. 

But the decision by Brussels is not backed by all EU member states. While France is in favor, auto giant Germany has been wary of these tariffs and made an eleventh-hour bid to dilute and reduce the Commission’s planned tariff hike. In the corridors of the German chancellery and parts of the German economics ministry, there is great concern that the German automotive industry could bear the brunt of Chinese retaliatory action. And this remains a space to watch. So far, this is a provisional predisclosure by the European Commission. It now has four months to adopt definitive measures, which will require an implementing act with an examination procedure, which usually implies a qualified majority vote in a comitology procedure, meaning it is not final and set in stone, yet.

Roderick Kefferpütz is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center and the director of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union office in Brussels. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung.

The EU is undertaking tariffs on China-made EVs due to surging shipments to Europe. Additionally, the US imposition of tariffs on EVs and other products—especially batteries—forced the EU’s hand. 

The EU is of at least two minds regarding tariffs on China-produced EVs. Germany, Sweden, and Hungary all oppose the tariffs, which they feel will damage existing commercial ties with China. Germany fears retaliation against its own auto sales to China. Sweden’s Volvo brand is owned by the Chinese firm Geely. And Hungary has received substantial EV investments from Chinese EV and battery companies. Conversely, France, Italy, and several other EU actors advocated for additional tariffs, as these measures could protect EU automakers from subsidized competitors while attracting inward investments from China. 

Owing to a lack of internal consensus, as well as the rapidly changing nature of the EV landscape, the EU may well revisit its decision in the coming months. The EU’s decision is caveated at several points and could be reassessed if the European-US alliance weakens over the next year.

Joseph Webster is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center, where he leads the center’s efforts on Chinese energy security.

Because the United States has very little Chinese EV market penetration as of now, its recent Section 301 tariffs on Chinese EVs are largely preventive. In contrast, the EU’s tariffs are responding to a rapid increase in Chinese EV imports. In this way, the EU tariffs are more in keeping with the manner in which antidumping/countervailing duty investigations are usually undertaken, and the EU announcement makes it clear that it is at least attempting to impose these duties in a World Trade Organization-compliant manner, including by offering to enter negotiations with the Chinese government.

The EU tariffs are both lower than the United States’ and more complicated. By choosing to apply tariffs on a company-by-company basis, the EU is trying to demonstrate that its actions are rooted in factual determinations about Chinese subsidies, which themselves are provided on a company-by-company basis. By ensuring SAIC cars are hit with the highest tariff rate, the EU is also differentiating between state-owned car companies (which SAIC is) and private firms (such as BYD and Geely). This also gives the EU tools to incentivize car companies on an individual basis to transfer more production to the EU in order to gain better market access. The message is clear—site production in the EU or be subject to a tariff designed to eliminate the subsidization benefits of building vehicles in China.

The differences between the US and EU tariffs further highlight how much more dependent major European car manufacturers are on China—as a market, a production site, and as a source of inward investment. US carmakers are much less reliant on China for revenue, largely because as Chinese automakers have grown, US brands have been pushed out. The sense that China is a declining market for US autos has also blunted organized industrial opposition to tariffs on Chinese vehicles. Across the Atlantic, European car manufacturers have been much more vocal and concerned about tariff action against Chinese EVs due to the potential for retaliation, and this shows in both the tariff level—which is much lower than the United States’—and the firm-specific carve-outs.

—Sarah Bauerle Danzman

The EU’s tariffs are vastly different from the US measures in several key aspects. The EU-announced tariff rates are substantially lower than comparable US measures; are differentiated on a company-by-company basis; and, unlike the United States’, indicate a receptiveness to inward investment. 

The European Commission’s investigation determined that Chinese automakers BYD and Geely will receive preferential tariff rates of 17.4 percent and 20 percent, which will be applied on top of the existing 10 percent tariff rate that Chinese EVs face. Other producers would face additional tariffs ranging from 21 percent to 38.1 percent. 

While the criteria for determining provisional countervailing duties is not transparent, it appears that the European Commission awarded lower rates to automakers investing into the European ecosystem. 

It is not clear how the Commission determined a level of subsidization on a company-by-company basis—or if this exercise is even possible. The Chinese system of subsidies is diverse, complex, and opaque. Chinese firms often receive direct or implicit support via preferential interest rates, directed credit, tax credits, and cross subsidies—such as in the steelmaking and shipbuilding sectors. Moreover, these subsidies take place at the national, provincial, and even local level. 

While it’s not clear how the European Union could determine the level of these subsidies, especially on a company-by-company basis, it can calculate which firms have the largest local footprint. Both BYD and Geely have substantial investments in Europe. BYD has already opened an EV plant in Hungary and plans to open another facility. Geely owns the Swedish brand Volvo and has begun to shift production of some vehicles from China to Belgium. 

Finally, China’s SAIC group received the maximum tariff rate of 38.1 percent. The automaker has a limited footprint on the continent, and it has yet to select a site for its first European production facility, despite nearly a year of consideration. Accordingly, Europe seems to be warning SAIC to site a facility within Europe or face tariffs.

—Joseph Webster

China will likely issue some corresponding tariffs on European-made goods, even if only for symbolic purposes. Yet, it may have no choice other than to accept that Europe will accept its investment, but not its exports. Beijing may also seek to re-engage with Europe on electric vehicles after the US presidential election, which will have significant implications for transatlantic ties. 

Beijing will closely watch Europe’s posture toward lithium-ion batteries, which can be used for grid storage or electric vehicles (and also have potential military implications). With US tariffs on lithium-ion batteries beginning in 2026, Europe will be flooded by these products unless it applies its own measures.

—Joseph Webster

China has already indicated it may retaliate with tariffs against internal combustion engine vehicles, aviation equipment, and agriculture. It remains to be seen whether China makes good on that threat, but it did send a letter to the Commission in the aftermath of the tariff announcements, asking for a negotiated settlement and threatening to start retaliatory measures in aviation and agriculture in the absence of a deal. Agriculture and aviation are both politically sensitive sectors, with exports to China representing more than 6 percent of the EU’s agricultural trade. It’s less clear how easily China could absorb the costs of aviation tariffs given that Airbus planes represent more than 50 percent of China’s commercial aviation fleet.

At some point, the usefulness of tariffs in changing governments’ behavior displays decreasing returns. This is especially true as rounds of protectionism reduce firms’ market share in each other’s markets. The lack of strong US industrial opposition to tariffs on Chinese EVs is a case in point. The lesson here is that governments are going to eventually have to sit down and work out their differences; trade wars might be on-trend at the moment, but eventually the downsides—including increased costs and reduced consumer choice—will become more apparent to citizens.

—Sarah Bauerle Danzman

Further reading

Related Experts: Sarah Bauerle Danzman, Joseph Webster, Roderick Kefferpütz, Jörn Fleck, and Jacopo Pastorelli

Image: TAICANG, CHINA - SEPTEMBER 11: Aerial view of BYD new energy vehicles waiting to be shipped aboard at an international container terminal of Taicang Port on September 11, 2023 in Taicang, Suzhou City, Jiangsu Province of China. (Photo by VCG/VCG )