British steel exports to the EU have plunged by a third in a fresh blow to the industry, experts revealed today.
Shipments from the UK to the bloc dipped to just under 420,000 tonnes in the first three months of the year as the sector grappled with the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal.
In contrast, the quarter one average of steel sent to the EU for the years 2015 to 2017 was 630,000 tonnes.
A separate analysis of exported steel products – excluding tubes, wire and cold finished bars – showed a 38% drop in the first three months of 2021 compared with the 2015-2017 average, a 39% fall against 2018 data and a 34% decrease compared with 2019.
The figures suggest a huge plunge in selling steel to the Continent after Brexit transition arrangements finished on December 31 last year.
Under Boris Johnson’s deal, formally known as Trade and Cooperation Agreement, UK exports of steel are subject to quotas and possible tariffs as a result of Brussels’ measures.
British steel exporters used an average of just 59% of their quotas in the first quarter.
It comes amid mounting fears for the future of Liberty Steel, which employs 3,000 workers at 11 UK plants, after the collapse of its main lender Greensill Capital.
The data shared with the Mirror was gathered by trade body UK Steel from the EU’s steel safeguard tariff rate quota allocation system, which is designed to prevent surges in imports.
UK Steel director-general Gareth Stace said: “This is a challenging time for the UK steel sector as it does its utmost to adapt to challenging new trading conditions and recover from the impacts of Covid-19.
“This first quarter of export data demonstrates quite how challenging market conditions are for the sector at this time and the new barriers now in place between us and our largest export market.
“We are confident that some of these export difficulties will lessen as time goes on, but unfortunately many will be a permanent feature of our new trading relationship with the EU.”
Mr Stace called on the Government to “take all possible steps to ensure that goods moving into Europe are able to move to customers swiftly and seamlessly”.
He demanded “clarity around the tariffs and quotas our steelmakers face when exporting into Northern Ireland, which remains in a customs no-man’s-land at the present time”.
He added: “We must find a resolution to the movement of steel across the Irish Sea as quickly as possible.”
Community steelworkers’ union general secretary Roy Rickhuss said: “This data is deeply concerning, and shows that despite previous assurances the British steel industry is not being adequately protected post-Brexit.
“It is vitally important that the Government takes the necessary steps to ensure UK steel companies, and other industries facing ongoing challenges, are not disadvantaged or face unnecessary barriers.
“We want UK steel companies to be able to compete on a level playing field but the current exporting challenges presented by Brexit are making the situation worse.
“Our steel industry is the lifeblood of the British economy.
“It is fundamental to Britain’s economic future and independence, we must never take it for granted.”
Labour MP Stephen Kinnock, who chairs Parliament’s cross-party group on steel, said cuts in exports “only serve to highlight the importance of our domestic steel market, the critical role of protective tariffs, and the urgent for the UK government to buy British steel for its infrastructure projects”.
He warned: “These new export figures are deeply concerning and underline the challenges facing the steel sector at present.
“The UK Government must look closely at these barriers to trade and think carefully about how it can support our industry to supply steel to customers across the continent.”
The MP, who represents Aberavon, which includes the Port Talbot steelworks, added:
“Steel provides the very backbone of the UK manufacturing sector, and there can be no post-pandemic recovery without a strong and healthy steel industry.
“The exporting of steel directly provides UK families and industrial communities with secure jobs and long-term prosperity.”
The Prime Minister has signalled the Government could step in to save Liberty, and has also suggested Whitehall departments could sign bumper contracts for billions of pounds worth of steel from British firms.
A Government spokesman said: “A unique combination of factors including stockpiling last year, Covid lockdowns across Europe and businesses adjusting to our new trading relationship, made it inevitable that exports to the EU, including steel, would be lower in the first part of this year.
“Many businesses have adapted well to our new trading relationship but our focus now is on making sure that any business still facing challenges gets the support they need.
“We have been a strong advocate for the steel industry and continue to support the sector’s transition to a competitive, sustainable and low carbon future.
“That’s why we have provided over £500m since 2013 to make electricity costs more competitive and established a £250m Clean Steel Fund to support the decarbonisation of UK steel.”
The Mirror has been campaigning to Save Our Steel since 2015 when the sector was hammered by plant closures and thousands of job losses.