European Union - Overview

An Expert's View about Business Environment in the United Kingdom

Posted on: 30 Sep 2012

Recent Developments
•Bulgaria and Romania acceded to the EU on 1 January 2007, signifying the sixth round of enlargement of the Union. Now, the EU is a trading bloc of 27 countries.
•All EU member states adopt common external trade policy and measures, which affect their trade relations with Hong Kong/the Chinese mainland. Meanwhile, following Estonia’s embracement of the euro as their new legal tender on 1 January 2011, 17 EU members have adopted the euro as their legal tender.
•Upon the expiry of the textile safeguard quotas by the end of 2007, a joint system with China had been established to monitor EU imports of Chinese textiles and apparel, which was scheduled to operate for one year, covering 8 out of the 10 previously restricted categories. Starting 1 January 2009, textile and clothing products originating in China no longer require any import licence or surveillance document before entering the EU.
•The EU’s scheme on generalised system of preferences (“GSP”) entered into effect on 1 January 2009, and has been extended to remain in force until 31 December 2013 (or until such time as the next Regulation becomes applicable, whichever comes first). While the Chinese mainland remains a beneficiary, it is among the group of to-be-excluded countries, which also includes India, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia, Malaysia and Russia, while Chinese mainland exports of, among other product categories, toys, electrical equipment, footwear, textiles, wooden articles, and watches and clocks have already been excluded from the preferential treatment.
•A number of Chinese mainland-origin products are subject to EU’s anti-dumping duties, including bicycles, candles, fasteners, ironing boards and saddles, which are of interest to Hong Kong exporters.
•Hong Kong’s total exports to the EU slid by 7% to US$20.3 billion in the first half of 2012, while its imports from the EU levelled at US$18.8 billion.
•The total stock of EU direct investment in Hong Kong amounted to US$107.5 billion (or HK$836.0 billion) as at the end of 2010.
•The EU economy, upset by the lingering uncertainty over sovereign debt crisis and subdued business and consumer confidence, has worsened in line with the uninspiring global recovery despite a gradually recovering US economy in the first half of 2012. Looking ahead, the high joblessness rate and the widespread fiscal and debt problems among peripheral economies such as Greece, Spain and Italy will continue to cast dark clouds on the sustained rebound of consumption and investment across the EU. This, together with the unpopular but inevitable austerity measures inside the bloc and among most of the bloc’s major trading partners, will hamper the contribution to growth from exports. Against this backdrop, the EU is expected to stagnate this year, before returning to growth of 1.3% in 2013.

EU Membership

The EU, before 1 May 2004, consisted of 15 developed countries in Western Europe, namely Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

On 1 May 2004, the EU enlarged into Central and Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean, and 10 countries in the region, including Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia, joined the EU as its member states.

Signifying the sixth round of enlargement, Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU on 1 January 2007. Now, the EU is a trade bloc of 27 countries, with Germany, France, the UK and Italy remaining the four biggest economies, which together account for about two-thirds of the total EU output.

Current Economic Situation                                          

Upset by the lingering uncertainty over sovereign debt crisis and subdued business and consumer confidence, the EU economy has lost steam in line with the uncertain global recovery despite occasional good news from the US economy in the first half of 2012. If anything, high joblessness of above 10%, unpopular yet inevitable austerity drive and gloomy business prospects have been a drag on the sustained rebound of consumption and investment. This, together with the slackening demand among member states and from the bloc’s major trading partners, will hamper the contribution to growth from exports. Against this backdrop, the EU economy is expected to stagnate in 2012, before returning to growth of 1.3% in 2013.

At country level, the German economy, buoyed by strong momentum of economic activity and favourable financing conditions, is expected to continue its stronger-than-peer performance. The prospects for 2012, however, will become more subdued in light of the ongoing debt debacle and weak regional and global demand. Overall, the German economy is forecast to grow by 0.7% this year.

In the meantime, despite some temporary elements such as exceptional sales in the aeronautical sector, the moderating private consumption in line with the worsening joblessness, will continue to have profound impacts on the French economy in the balance of 2012. Consequently, the growth of the French economy is expected to moderate further to 0.5% this year.

In the UK, uninspiring household consumption, tepid investment sentiment and sharp decline in manufacturing activities and export orders due to the escalating European sovereign debt crisis sent the economy back into recession in the first quarter of 2012. Looking ahead, an expected easing of unemployment and lower inflation will likely provide an impetus to growth, giving rise to a growth forecast of 0.5% this year.

On the other hand, the economic outlook in several southern, highly indebted European countries remains bleak, given their aggravating labour-market conditions, low capacity utilisation and worrying debt levels. The projected GDP declines in Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece, for instance, range from 1.4% to 4.7% for 2012.

Trade Policy

All EU member states adopt common external trade policy and measures. Meanwhile, 17 EU members, including Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain, have adopted the euro as their legal tender. 

Textiles and Clothing

Hong Kong’s textiles and clothing exports to the EU were previously subject to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Agreement on Textiles and Clothing (ATC), under which quantitative restrictions on textiles and clothing were eliminated completely on 1 January 2005.

Likewise, the previous quotas imposed by the EU on textiles and clothing products originating from the Chinese mainland were removed on 1 January 2005. However, as a result of the EU-China agreement reached in June 2005, the EU imposed safeguard quotas on 10 categories of Chinese textile products for the period of 2005-2007. Upon the expiry of the textile safeguard quotas by the end of 2007, a joint system with China was established to monitor EU imports of Chinese textiles and apparel for one year, covering 8 out of the 10 previously restricted categories.

Starting 1 January 2009, textile and clothing products originating in China no longer require any import licence or surveillance document before entering the EU.

Non-textile Manufacturing Products

Previously, the EU also imposed Union-wide quotas on three categories of non-textile products originating from the Chinese mainland, including certain footwear, porcelain and ceramic tableware/kitchenware. But these quotas were liberalised on 1 January 2005.

Scheme of Generalised Tariff Preferences

The EU’s scheme on generalised system of preferences (“GSP”) entered into effect on 1 January 2009, and has been extended to remain in force until 31 December 2013 (or until such time as the next Regulation becomes applicable, whichever comes first). While the Chinese mainland remains a beneficiary, it is among the group of to-be-excluded countries, which also includes India, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia, Malaysia and Russia, while Chinese mainland exports of, among other product categories, toys, electrical equipment, footwear, textiles, wooden articles, and watches and clocks have already been excluded from the preferential treatment. Regarding Hong Kong, the territory has been fully excluded from the EU’s GSP scheme since 1 May 1998.

Anti-dumping Measures

The EU has initiated anti-dumping (AD) proceedings against certain mainland-origin products. Currently, there are a number of mainland-origin items subject to EU’s anti-dumping measures, including bicycles (at a duty rate of 48.5%), fasteners (27.4%-85.0%), ironing boards (42.3%) and saddles (29.6%), which are among the affected products of interest to Hong Kong. As at the end of 2011, the EU did not apply any AD measures on imports from Hong Kong.

Other Measures

To combat the spread of the Asian longhorn beetle, the EU introduced in July 1999 emergency controls on wooden packaging material originating in the Chinese mainland. Wood covered by the measures must be stripped of its bark and free of insect bore holes greater than 3mm across, or have been kiln-dried to below 20% moisture content.

For health reasons, the EU has adopted a Directive on the control of the use of nickel in objects intended to be in contact with the skin, such as watches and jewellery. Following the emergency ban adopted in December 1999, the EU has adopted a Directive to ban the use of some phthalates in certain PVC toys and childcare articles on a permanent basis, which will come into effect from 16 January 2007. In addition, the EU has adopted a Directive to prohibit from September 2003 the trading of clothing, footwear and other textile and leather articles which contain azo-dyes, from which aromatic amines may be derived.

On the other hand, the EU has adopted a number of Directives for environmental protection, which may have an impact on the sales of a wide range of consumer goods and consumer electronics. Notable examples include the Directive on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) implemented in August 2005, and the Directive on Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) implemented in July 2006. On 3 December 2008, the European Commission (EC) presented two proposals: one for a recast RoHS Directive and the other for a recast WEEE Directive.

The recast RoHS Directive was published on 1 July 2011. It will have to be implemented throughout the EU-27 as of 2 January 2013. The new Directive will continue to prohibit EEE that contains the same six dangerous substances as the old RoHS Directive. Nonetheless, the new Directive will widen, as from 22 July 2019, the current scope of the previous RoHS Directive, by including any EEE that will have fallen out of the old RoHS Directive’s scope, with only limited exceptions.

Another important law for Hong Kong companies to grapple with concerns waste EEE, i.e., the WEEE Directive. Under the recast, the new rules will include higher WEEE collection targets and broader scope of measure. Subject to European Council’s approval, the new WEEE Directive is expected to enter into force in the summer of 2012, while member states will have 18 months after to transpose the directive into national law.

On the heels of the recast RoHS Directive and the soon-to-be adopted recast WEEE Directive, the EU’s new framework Directive for setting eco-design requirements for energy-related product (ErP) is now in place. The ErP Directive is no longer limited to only EEE (as it was under its predecessor, the energy-using product, or EuP, Directive), but potentially covers any product that is related to the use of energy, including shower heads and other bathroom fittings, as well as insulation and construction materials.

Moreover, REACH, an EU Regulation which stands for Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals, entered into force in June 2007. Among others, it requires EU manufacturers and importers of chemical substances (whether on their own, in preparations or in certain articles) to gather comprehensive information on properties of their substances produced or imported in volumes of 1 tonne or more per year, and to register such substances prior to manufacturing in or import into the EU.

Following the entry into force of the new Toy Safety Directive (Directive 2009/48/EC) on 20 July 2011, the Official Journal of the EU published on 11 August 2011 references to two important safety standards concerning electric toys (EN 62115:2005 and its amendment EN 62115:2005/A2:2011) and two previous standards on the mechanical and physical properties of toys and a standard on the flammability of toys.

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Posted: 30 September 2012

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