29th Sep 2023

Commissioners at odds over Chinese-made light bulbs

The European Commission is heading for a tough meeting today, as its two commissioners, in charge of trade and industry, are locked in an internal struggle over whether to end import duties on low-energy light bulbs imported from China – a case also seen as a significant test of free trade.

Later on Wednesday (29 August), EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson is set to push through the idea of lifting import duties imposed in 2002 to shield European lightbulb producers from the import and subsequent sale of Chinese bulbs on the EU market at below-cost price.

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  • Lightbulbs - a test case for free trade in the EU (Photo: European Community, 2006)

The tariffs add up to 66 percent on the value of bulbs, with critics claiming they harm European importers and retailers.

However, EU industry commissioner Guenther Verheugen has rejected Mr Mandelson's call to scrap the duties, arguing it would result in job losses in Europe.

Instead, he has suggested a two-year extension of the duties – an idea reportedly supported by several other commissioners, including commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso.

Industry has also stepped into the fighting arena, as many manufactures have already moved their production to China and will be greatly affected by Brussels' decision.

Most European producers, led by Dutch electronics group Philips, have urged the commission to back Mr Mandelson's proposal, saying continuing protectionism would come at the expense of consumers as well as the EU's target to reduce energy use by 20 percent, by 2020.

"Continuing duties would be a backward, protectionist move to safeguard the short-term interests of one single company", Philips said in a statement, underlining that demand for low-energy light bulbs is likely to reach 400 million units by the end of 2007. European capacity is far below 100 million units.

This has also been echoed by the British Retail Consortium, with director general Kevin Hawkins saying "Europe is currently pushing up prices through unjustifiable import taxes". "The Commission needs to put the environment before the narrow self-interests of a minority of member countries and scrap import duties on Chinese bulbs", he added.

On the other hand, Germany's Guenther Verheugen is widely seen as an advocate for Osram, part of the German-based Siemens group, which imports less from China than its competitors and is concerned about the job losses.

"We want fair competition and fair trade and we abide by rules and regulations", Juliane Braun from Osram was cited as saying by the International Herald Tribune, adding, however, "we are honouring the spirit of free trade and have encouraged Chinese competitors to take part in this review".

Mr Mandelson's spokesperson told the IHT prior the meeting that he "believes that it will be possible to arrive at a consensus".

After the college of 27 commissioners adopts its formal position today, the issue will be forwarded for debate to the EU capitals. According to Reuters news agency, a narrow majority of member states indicated in July they would either back plans to scrap the duties or would not oppose it.

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