A high-level discussion - organised by the Parliament Magazine, in association with the Nickel Institute, Eurometaux and Metals Pro Climate - heard that providing enough food, housing, energy and water will require a "concerted drive" for new and improved technologies.
However, it will be "impossible" to address these needs without metals and other raw materials, the lively lunchtime debate was told.
The EU's strategic implementation plan (SIP), recently published by the high level steering group of the European innovation partnership (EIP) on raw materials, was the focus of the debate.
The plan outlines the possible ways Europe can safeguard a sustainable supply of raw materials by 2020. The SIP proposes mining, recycling, substitution and alternative processes as ways to innovate.
Opening the meeting, Bulgarian MEP Vladko Panayotov, an acknowledged expert on mining and raw materials, pointed to the "crucial importance" of raw materials to Europe's economy.
The ALDE deputy, a member of parliament's environment, public health and food safety committee, also voiced concern that demand for raw materials was heavily outstripping current supply.
This offered Europe a "good opportunity" but, setting the tone for the debate, he questioned whether enough was being done to meet such demand.
A level playing field?
Peter Willbrandt, a keynote speaker and member of the EIP steering group, said he had followed the subject with "great interest and concern".
Willbrandt, also CEO of Aurubis AG, said the supply of raw materials was of "high importance" for his company, the world's largest copper recycler and Europe's biggest copper producer.
He said, "Obviously, our daily business is to contribute to the reduction of Europe's severe import dependency by ensuring a reliable raw material supply."
As the demand for raw materials continues to increase and natural elements of the earth's crust are limited in absolute terms, the non-ferrous metals industry is the "motor of efficient and sustainable production methods", he suggested.
In order to compete with international competitors like China, he said Europe needs an "international level playing field" if it wants to "continue doing business successfully" in future and secure jobs and prosperity.
He argued that the EIP can be used to ensure a sustainable supply of raw materials but only if it seeks to establish "favourable framework conditions", including "stable and sound rules and policies and a level playing field with respect to EU relations worldwide".
He added, "The issue of the efficient use of resources is not only on top of the political agenda in Brussels and Berlin, it is also at the heart of the non-ferrous metals industry strategies.
"The issue of a level playing field is critical for both productions of primary and secondary raw materials. We need to ensure that Europe's first class industry is not penalised through uneven conditions. The EIP can support innovative approaches to increase Europe's competitiveness."
Raw material diplomacy
This was a theme seized upon by another guest speaker, Veronique Steukers, public policy director of the Nickel Institute, a non profit organisation, who cautioned against EU legislation "stifling" innovation.
She said a recent survey showed that R&D expenditure in the nickel industry amounted to some €2billion annually, a "significant part" of the EU's overall R&D spend.
Steukers, whose organisation represents 20 companies producing 75 per cent of the world's annual nickel output, said that what she calls "raw material diplomacy" will be of "central importance."
"However," she added, "we have seen concerns endangering the level playing field. There are conflicts resulting from chemicals management legislation, for example Reach, which endangers the supply of highly innovative value chains with raw materials."
Restrictions and bans on the use of substances "have the potential" to result in production moving outside Europe, she warned.
"We risk losing important parts of the value chain to areas where legislation is built on sound science and risk-based policy," she added.
A call for commitments
The commission's position was outlined by Flor Diaz Pulido, from DG enterprise and industry, who agreed that a "successful" EU industrial policy was "essential" for competitiveness and economic growth.
Supporting industry, she said, means creating growth and jobs, "which the European economy urgently needs at this moment".
It is estimated that, whereas manufacturing industry currently contributes 15.6 per cent of the EU's GDP, industry in the wider sense, as well as the services which depend on industry, account for close to half of all EU GDP.
Manufacturing industry accounts for 80 per cent of all R&D expenditure and 75 per cent of EU exports.
Diaz Pulido detailed the next legislative steps with the executive's raw materials proposal, saying the commission would issue a 'call for commitments' by the end of October.
"This will allow all potential stakeholders to commit fully and officially to the implementation of the SIP. In early 2014, the commission will work with those in industry and academia who have committed on how they intend to implement the SIP," she went on.
"It is now very important that momentum on this matter is maintained and that we do not lose focus."
She also refuted suggestions that legislation such as Reach could hamper innovation or industry, saying, "We are fully committed as anyone to ensuring that Europe is as competitive as possible over the next seven years."
In a Q&A following the formal debate, Ines Van Lierde, secretary general of Association of European ferro-alloy producers, was another who picked up on the need for European industry to be able to compete on equal terms with the rest of the world.
The Brussels-based official said, "At present, the raw materials industry in Europe is not competing equally with its major competitors. In fact, there are huge differences in areas like environmental protection and energy costs. This is not being taken into account in the EU's trade discussions."
Annick Carpentier, director of the European Association of Metals, highlighted the "importance" of metals in meeting challenges across a range of sectors, including health and energy.
But, echoing similar calls from other speakers, she also spoke of the need for more "resource efficiency" and better rates of recyling. "We need to raise general awareness of the added value of raw materials and recycling. Each of these present a real challenge," she said.
Elsewhere, Dirk Vandenberghe, CEO of Metallo - a Belgium-based copper and tin secondary refiner, said he "fully supports" the establishment of the European innovation partnership.
"Anything that strives for resource efficiency in this industry has got to be welcomed but we also have to keep an eye on environmental legislation," he added.