However, during the last five years, there has been a slowdown in economic output across the EU, and, while the forecasts are positive, modest growth of 2.0%-2.3% is expected in 2004. Weak growth has led to reduced consumer and business confidence. Industrial production has decreased, including the production of durable consumer goods. Levels of private consumption have fluctuated during early 2003, following modest growth in the previous two years. This is partly due to poor labor market conditions, with EU unemployment rising during 2003. Economic indicators are weak in some major EU economies such as Germany, France, Italy and Spain. Only the United Kingdom (UK) has managed to resist these trends (Trends and drivers). This has greatly affected the car industry, given the car's status as the ultimate consumer and fashion item, as well as the importance of engineering and design in the manufacturing process. Average profit margins have declined from around 10% in the 1960s to less than 5% today, and some volume car makers are actually losing money (EMCC dossier).
Despite increasing competition worldwide, European automotive has maintained a strong position in exports and global sales. The strong bond between Europe's vehicle manufacturers and the sophisticated customer base in the largest car market in the world constitutes a prominent competitive advantage, while the notable presence of European producers in emerging markets, such as China and the Russian Federation, offers a potential for future growth and profits (info-crono-archivio). Furthermore, EU enlargement created new opportunities for the European automotive industry. The combination of expertise, affordable labor and the proximity to the large European markets has led to the emergence of a very dynamic cluster in the new Member States - especially Poland, the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic and Hungary (info-crono-archivio).
Despite these advantages, many challenges remain: the EU automotive industry lags behind the US and Japan in terms of productivity. Labor productivity in the EU-15 is 25 per cent lower than in the US and 30 per cent lower than in Japan; labor costs per hour worked in the EU-15 are comparable to those in the US, but more than ten per cent above those in Japan and almost three times as high as in Korea (data for 2001, converted using purchasing power parities). Annual working time in the automotive industry in EU-15 is more than 20 per cent shorter than in the US (in 2001); there are major technological challenges ahead, most prominently the fuel cell (info-crono-archivio).
Influences of EU policies
European legislation is one of the main drivers of the European automotive industry. Emissions and recycling legislation have a strong impact both on vehicle technologies and construction (Trends and drivers). EC, industry and consumer concerns for environmental sustainability, road safety and mobility have led to a number of significant technological developments. These have both positive and negative effects on profitability. For example, a limited number of specialist high technology suppliers might prosper while vehicle makers see their already narrow profit margins cut even further. Such a development would make vehicle makers vulnerable to further consolidation and restrict