BRUSSELS – The European Commission on Tuesday imposed anti-dumping duties on imports of Chinese solar panels, defying German-led opposition and dire warnings from Beijing the move could spark a trade war.
“Today, the European Commission has decided unanimously to impose (punitive) tariffs” on Chinese solar panels, after finding they were being sold at up to 88 percent below cost in the European market, EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht said.
De Gucht said it “is clear that the dumping” is harming the European solar panel industry, with 25,000 jobs threatened as Chinese firms take 80 percent of the market.
Accordingly, the commission would levy an initial average tariff of 11.8 percent starting Thursday and rising to 47.6 percent on Aug. 6 in the absence of negotiations based on a Chinese commitment to addressing the problem.
“I want a fair solution with China,” De Gucht said, adding the decision opened the way to talks, if Beijing wanted them. “The ball is now in China’s court.”
Meanwhile, China on Wednesday launched an anti-dumping probe against wine imported from the EU. “The Chinese government has initiated an anti-dumping and anti-subsidy investigation procedure into wines from the European Union,” Commerce Ministry spokesman Shen Danyang said.
China is the EU’s second-largest trading partner, but the move is a major widening of a row that has already involved solar equipment and telecoms, chemicals and seamless pipes.
No figures were immediately available for total EU wine exports to China, but the largest individual wine supplier nation in 2012 was France, with 140 million liters sold, worth $788 million.
China has solar panel production capacity equal to 150 percent of world demand, De Gucht said, and that meant they were manufacturing too much.
The tariffs are provisional for six months, with EU member states having a vote in December on whether to make them permanent or not. De Gucht insisted that the measures were not protectionist but rather within the EU’s rights under international trade law to protect its interests.
In recent weeks, Germany has led growing opposition to the move, winning the support of 17 other member nations, including Britain but not France.
Berlin says the tariffs are not needed, stressing the wider trade relationship with China that was worth some €500 billion ($650 billion) last year.
But De Gucht said it was up to the commission, the EU’s executive arm, to make the final decisions in trade matters as it was “independent” and sees the “bigger picture.”
German Economy Minister Philipp Roesler said as the announcement was being made that it was “a serious mistake,” with Berlin firmly opposed.
Chancellor Angela Merkel pointedly said late last month as she hosted visiting Chinese Premier Li Keqiang that Germany would do all it could to resolve the problem without tariffs.
De Gucht noted shortly afterward that he was aware of the pressure China was exerting and that he was determined to resist it at all costs.
“This is a very reasonable decision,” De Gucht said.
The EU and China now find themselves locked in a series of trade disputes, ranging from solar panels and telecoms for Brussels, to chemicals and steel tubes for Beijing, amid concerns they could lead to broader trade war.
China had warned last month that introducing tariffs on solar panels could result in just that outcome, which both sides also say they want to avoid.
The case was initially brought to the commission by EU ProSun, which groups European solar panel makers hurt by Chinese imports.
Still, other firms in the solar energy industry that rely on imported components from China have lobbied equally hard against imposing tariffs, claiming they would be counterproductive and hurt the business overall.
“Any level of duties will severely hurt demand, causing job losses and dealing a massive blow to the European solar industry,” the Alliance of Affordable Solar Energy said.
It said profit margins were already very tight and that even duties “as low as 11 percent will put a halt to most of (solar energy) projects in the EU.”
The commission’s decision is its single most important anti-dumping action, covering a market worth €21 billion, and follows similar steps by the U.S.