The EU is ready to use punitive anti-dumping tariffs on imports — such as steel — after a UK-led blocking minority of countries opposed to the reforms collapsed.
Britain had been part of an alliance set on scuppering the plan as unnecessary and protectionist. But on Friday the Netherlands and Austria indicated that they would throw their weight behind the proposal, leaving the UK likely to be outnumbered when EU member states vote on the plan later this year.
If introduced, the rules would bring a shift in EU trade policy by allowing the bloc to introduce far higher tariffs on products judged to be unfairly priced.
Peter Žiga, Slovakia’s minister of the economy, who presided over Friday’s talks, said: “Europe cannot be naive and has to defend its interests, especially in the case of dumping. Our trade defence instruments have been the same for 15 years, but the situation on the world markets has changed dramatically.”
Among the potential targets would be Chinese steel, which has flooded the European market, putting domestic manufacturers under pressure and triggering job losses in the sector.
While the US has placed punitive duty of 266 per cent on imports of some Chinese steel products, similar EU tariffs amount to just 21 per cent.
Germany and France — along with the European Commission — had argued for punitive tariffs. They said they were one of the few ways of protecting jobs in Europe’s steel sector, where 20 per cent of jobs have disappeared since 2008, according to the European industry’s main lobby group. Today the sector employs 320,000 people across the bloc.
However, critics of the proposal argued that extra EU anti-dumping measures ran the risk of triggering retaliatory moves from Beijing, which will soon be treated as a “market economy” in trade disputes at the World Trade Organisation.
Britain had argued vociferously against the proposal for years. However the position led to a political dispute in the UK in March when 15,000 jobs were put at risk following Tata Steel’s decision to sell its business in Britain, leading to calls for protectionist measures to help save jobs.
Officials from other European countries accused Britain of opposing the measures in part to improve relations with Beijing — a foreign policy goal under David Cameron’s former government. However British officials argued that other manufacturers, such as carmakers, benefited from cheap steel imports.
Brussels’ comparatively mild tariffs on Chinese steel had also triggered a rift with Washington, which had called for a more forthright approach against Beijing.
A final deal will be hammered out by EU diplomats before being voted on by ministers this year. Cecilia Malmstrom, the EU’s trade commissioner, said the rules would not provide carte blanche for the bloc to hinder imports. She said: “The aim is to have a really rock solid trade defence instrument where necessary.”