Peter Mandelson, the EU trade commissioner, has come under fierce pressure from several European countries to impose anti-dumping duties on shoe imports from China, diplomatic and industry sources said over the weekend.
Mandelson, who became embroiled in a damaging row over imports of Chinese textiles last summer when tens of millions of items of clothing were blocked at EU ports, is said to be resisting calls for tariffs, considering at best minimal measures to head off a growing clamor from shoe-producing countries such as Italy.
The commissioner, who was forced to impose temporary quotas on Chinese textiles last year by a similar group of countries, has been warned by Beijing that China could take the EU to arbitration at the WTO and Europe could see valuable export contracts for goods such as aircraft placed elsewhere.
Shoe retailers, including importers of hi-tech trainers from China and Vietnam, said action against Beijing and Hanoi would threaten 600,000 European jobs and sales of 40 billion euros (US$48.4 billion) a year. It could add up to 20 euros to the price of each pair.
The EU launched an investigation in July into whether shoes with leather uppers from China and Vietnam were being "dumped" in Europe at prices below the cost of production. Brussels has until April 7 to decide whether to recommend anti-dumping duties but a decision is likely early next month. Quotas on Chinese shoes were lifted on Jan. 1 last year, and initial figures suggested there was a 700 percent surge in imports in the first quarter of the year. The latest figures indicated that the surge had abated, with imports up 322 percent in the first nine months of last year to 176 million pairs.
However, EU officials said the volume of imports had no bearing on the question of dumping. Separate figures indicated that unit prices of Chinese shoes had declined from 13.8 euros in 2002 to 7.7 euros last year.
China, which has about a quarter of the EU market compared with 6 percent four years ago, has said that "flawed" EU figures did not support an anti-dumping case. China also argued that European production plunged long before quotas were lifted.
Among the options available to Brussels is to apply a "tariff rate quota" which would allow a certain number of shoes to be imported and apply a levy on extras. A more palatable option would be to set minimum import prices, as demanded by the European branded footwear coalition.
The coalition -- which includes Clarks, Ecco, Rockport and Timberland -- has told Mandelson that this would exempt from duty higher-quality leather shoes selling for more than 50 euros and imported at a stable level since quotas were lifted.