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Critical raw materials and their role in the future of Europe  

​​​In this interview, Isolde Ries, first vice-president of the Saarland State Parliament, answers five questions about her opinion on the Action Plan on Critical Raw Materials, which is scheduled for adoption at the Committee of the Regions' plenary session on 17 March.

In September 2020, the European Commission published an Action Plan on Critical Raw Materials which is subject to an opinion drafted by Isolde Ries . The Commission classifies raw materials as critical if they are of crucial economic importance but cannot be reliably and sustainably extracted within the EU. The EU is particularly dependent on imports from other countries when it comes to raw materials that are important for the European digitalisation and Green Deal and for the development of future-oriented technologies. The opinion on the Action Plan on critical raw materials highlights that in order to safeguard the European supply of critical raw materials local and regional authorities play a crucial role when it comes to increasing the extraction of raw materials within the EU and improving the recycling capacity of critical raw materials.

Your opinion focuses on strengthening the future supply of critical raw materials in the European Union. What specific action should the EU take to protect supply chains for critical raw materials and make them less dependent on non-EU countries?

From an economic policy point of view, it is a positive and important move for the Committee of the Regions to be looking at the communication on critical raw materials resilience that the European Commission published at the beginning of September last year. Modern economies with long value chains cannot function over the long term without a secure, competitive and environmentally sound supply of raw materials. We need to reduce the EU’s dependence on critical raw materials through more efficient resource use, sustainable products and innovation. Domestic extraction of raw materials in the EU should be supported politically and financially, and sourcing from outside the EU should be diversified. Environmental and social standards, as well as the traceability of supply and trade chains, must be safeguarded by international agreements. I also welcome the European Raw Materials Alliance launched by the European Commission, with representatives of industry, research, Member States and civil society. This initiative can make a valuable contribution to promoting technical know-how, innovation and investment.

How can the European Union contribute to a greater responsibility in raw material supply chains and to a more sustainable use of raw materials?

There are undoubtedly weaknesses in supply chains for raw materials. We need strategic approaches, such as adequate storage, to avoid disruptions in production and supply. Alternative sources of supply are also needed, as are closer partnerships between stakeholders dealing with critical raw materials. However, cooperation with partners must also involve responsible sourcing. A high concentration of supply in countries with lower social and environmental standards not only poses a risk to security of supply but can also exacerbate social and environmental problems. We should therefore first be seeking international agreements at WTO level, aimed at ensuring a high level of transparency in supply and trade chains. Negotiations on systematic improvements to those standards should subsequently be launched as soon as possible.

How can critical raw material use be made more efficient and the circular economy improved in production processes?

By their very nature, improvements in the efficiency of the use of raw materials and of production processes are important, as they are the best way of reconciling the objectives of competitiveness and environmental sustainability. In Europe, the term "waste" often conceals valuable resources and critical raw materials. Recycled materials should therefore be used to a much greater extent, so as to reduce the use of primary and critical raw materials. This is a plea to manufacturers, distributors and consumers alike.

​​​What role can cities and regions, in particular European mining regions, play in increasing the extraction of raw materials in the EU?

Local and regional authorities play a key role in the European Commission's Raw Materials Action Plan. For example, they are responsible for licensing and oversight with regard to raw materials and industrial projects. The value creation and employment associated with the extraction of raw materials take place at local level – and so do research and development projects.

As a politician from Saarland – a region with a strong mining tradition – what is particularly important to me is this: current and former mining regions have the necessary know-how in extracting raw materials, and this should continue to be used in future. It is certainly not easy to restart underground or open-cast raw materials extraction today, as there is growing resistance among the local population. We need to increase public acceptance through education and information. Adverse effects on the environment should be avoided or minimised as far as possible.

What lessons can be learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and the months of lockdown that have exposed the vulnerability of certain key industries?

The COVID-19 crisis has made it clear that Europe is highly dependent on non-EU suppliers for critical raw materials, and that supply disruptions can have a negative impact on industrial value chains and other sectors. Critical raw materials are required in many key European industries, such as automotive, steel, aerospace, IT, health and renewable energy sectors. Pioneering products and technologies such as e-mobility, digitalisation, Industry 4.0 and the energy transition are changing and increasing the need for raw materials. We need to be aware that the EU's Green Deal will not be possible without the use of critical raw materials.


In September 2020, the European Commission announced an Action Plan on Critical Raw Materials . In 2020 30 raw materials were classified as critical, including several which are becoming increasingly important in the energy sector, such as lithium and cobalt. In 2011, there were only 14 on the list. The list and further information on the raw materials can be found here.

In addition, last year, the European Commission created the European Raw Materials Alliance, with the aim of bringing together industry, Member States and civil society to reduce Europe's dependence on sourcing critical raw materials from outside the EU.

Tobias Kolonko
Tel.: +32 2 282 2003

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