British delay casts doubt over tariffs on Chinese shoes

Click to follow

European Union plans to slap tariffs on Chinese shoe imports have been thrown into doubt just days ahead of a key meeting of member states to approve the sanctions.

The European Commission has convened a committee of top-level civil servants from the 25 EU states on Thursday to debate its plans to impose levies on Chinese and Vietnamese shoes after uncovering a regime of state subsidies. However, it has emerged that the UK, a powerful voice on trade issues, will not offer its opinion until a meeting on 21 March - putting in jeopardy the deadline for the EU to take action before its remit expires.

Peter Mandelson, the EU trade commissioner, does not need approval to take temporary action, but he has always made it clear that he wants consensus support.

Brussels insists it will make its final decision within days of the Thursday meeting, but for its part London is adamant it has no plans to voice its opinion for another fortnight.

The disagreement, over what appears to be a technical issue of timing, has left key observers baffled. Some believe it might be an attempt by Brussels to limit a bitter war of words between the two sides within the EU, while others thought it could be a UK bid to scupper the tariffs.

A commission spokesman said everyone in Brussels was agreed Thursday's meeting would be "where the decision is made". He said: "In order to have provisional measures in place before the 7 April deadline we would need to begin some of the initial processes before 21 March."

The Department of Trade and Industry in London said this Thursday was an opportunity to hear the details of the commission's proposals. A spokesman said: "We are not going to put forward our position until the committee on 21 March. On the 9th [Thursday] the commission will say, 'These are our proposals and let's discuss them with member states and see what their views are'."

The commission pointed out that member governments had had the proposals - to impose a phased tariff against China and Vietnam rising from 4 to 20 per cent - for the last 10 days.

The British Retail Consortium, which has been critical of the tariffs, said it was confident a final decision would be taken on 21 March rather than on Thursday. But Alisdair Gray, its European director, said: "It would be better if they agreed it on Thursday because we would get a better deal." Meanwhile, it is understood Brussels has delayed plans to launch temporary measures against Chinese imports of plastic bags to avoid having two major consumer issues running simultaneously.