BRUSSELS, March 5 (Reuters) – European trade officials seem to be taking a softer line on the use of anti-dumping measures in a shift that is unsettling some of the continent’s industry but could please bargain-hunting shoppers, trade experts say.
They detect a shift beginning even before the EU trade chief ends a review of the sensitive rules.
Lawyers and specialist diplomats say Peter Mandelson’s team has given more weight than usual to the interests of EU importers and consumers, rather than businesses feeling the heat from foreign competition, in some recent anti-dumping cases.
Welcomed by trade “liberals”, the apparent change worries some EU governments who usually want more protection for industries they say are threatened by underpriced imports.
“It’s too early to say for sure but there seems to be a shift taking place,” a trade diplomat said.
The rise of China and other low-cost exporters has turned the minutia of the EU’s “trade defence instruments” (TDI), chiefly its anti-dumping duties, a new battlefield for the opposing business and political interests within the bloc.
Mandelson launched his TDI review in December after a row between EU governments on whether to impose duties on Asian leather shoes that some countries said were undercutting their manufacturers but others said were welcome for their cheapness.
The review asks whether the dumping rules would better reflect global trends if they gave more weight to the interests of EU companies with some production in countries like China, and those which rely on cheap imports to remain competitive.
Responses from businesses, governments, unions and other groups are due by March 31.
Mandelson, an avowed free trader, has not said whether he thinks dumping duties should be used more sparingly.
But Adrian van den Hoven, head of trade at employers lobby BusinessEurope, said the EU’s executive Commission was already testing some of the ideas up for consultation.
“It’s not a very honest way to go about it. The European Commission should apply the rules as they exist today,” he said.
Fritz Harald Wenig, a Commission trade director, dismissed the claim as a myth. Peter Power, Mandelson’s spokesman said: “There has been no change of procedures and we are implementing existing rules.”
ROOM FOR MANOEUVRE
Experts say that rather than change the rules, the Commission is using existing leeway within them to give more weight than usual to the EU’s “Community Interest” test.
It aims to ensure that duties to help manufacturers do not hurt the EU’s broader interests, such as companies seeking to remain competitive by using cheap imports to make finished products, or consumers enjoying low prices.
Community Interest has been cited in a recommendation to drop anti-dumping duties on Chinese frozen strawberries imports, which are hurting EU jam and yoghurt makers. That has alarmed EU member Poland which says its strawberry industry is at risk.
Lawyers say the test also led to the dropping of plans for anti-dumping duties on Asian recordable CDs and DVDs last year.
“It’s not unknown for cases to be terminated because of Community Interest but there has been a cluster recently and the more protectionist EU countries are jumping up and down,” said a trade lawyer, adding it was too soon to call it a new trend.
Separately, EU furniture makers, who are considering whether to request an anti-dumping probe into Chinese imports, say the Commission has shown reluctance to get involved in what would probably be another high-profile, EU-splitting case.
But some countries want to strengthen the dumping rules, not relax them, and for the EU trade chief to take a back seat.
Italy has proposed more technical criteria in investigations so duties could kick in automatically in some cases, and to make protection measures more accessible for small firms.
“We need clear rules and to make sure they are respected, not vague rules that everyone interprets as they see fit,” Trade Minister Emma Bonino said in notes for a recent speech. In an apparent rebuke to Mandelson, she also said Brussels’ dumping powers should go to an independent agency or another part of the Commission as cases can conflict with the trade commissioner’s role in doing trade deals with third countries.
With the EU likely to be as split over dumping reform as it was over the shoes duties, there is little chance of sweeping change as a result of Mandelson’s review, officials say.
European retailers say they are waiting to see how Brussels will deal with dumping cases in the future.
“We welcome the signals but people want a clearer idea to have the confidence to invest in supply chains,” said Alisdair Gray, a director of the British Retail Consortium.