EU warns on China influence, offers opening on solar dispute

BRUSSELS (AFP) - The European Commission warned on Monday against undue Chinese influence as Germany led growing opposition among EU member states to a planned punitive levy on imports of solar panels from China.

Brussels said visiting Chinese Vice-Minister of Commerce Zhong Shan had asked to see EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht, just days before the expected June 5 announcement of the solar anti-dumping tariff.

Mr De Gucht spokesman John Clancy stressed that at what were strictly informal talks, the commissioner "expressed clearly that he was ready to negotiate a solution on the solar panels case."

But Mr De Gucht also made it "very clear ... that he was aware of the pressure being exerted by China on a number of EU member states," Mr Clancy said.

Such pressure "explains why they are positioning themselves as they are," he said, adding: "This is why it is so important ... that it is the European Commission which has the role of deciding on provisional tariffs.

"It is the role of the European Commission to remain independent, to resist any external pressure and to see the 'big picture' for the benefit of Europe, its companies and workers based upon the evidence alone," he said in a statement.

The statement did not name any countries but the remarks followed Germany's announcement earlier Monday to visiting Chinese Premier Li Keqiang that it opposed the solar panel levy, provisionally set at a very damaging 47 per cent.

"There is, from our point of view, no longer a need for penalties," German Economy Minister Philipp Roesler said.

"We are against protectionist measures, for open markets and fair competition," Mr Roesler said ahead of a lunch with Mr Li, on the final day of his visit to Germany, by far China's biggest European trading partner.

Mr Li welcomed the move, saying it was because Berlin "wanted to hear" China's stance. "This position, that is what binds China with Germany and earns my appreciation," he added.

The exchanges followed a pledge by Chancellor Angela Merkel Sunday that Germany would do everything it could to ensure a negotiated solution to a series of disputes amid fears they could lead to a trade war.

At all costs, both sides must avoid "lapsing into a kind of dispute which finally only ends in mutual tariffs," Dr Merkel said.

"I will, as head of the government, advocate that we, at the European level, as quickly as possible have intensive discussions with the Chinese side on the questions at issue," Dr Merkel told a joint press conference with Mr Li.

Sources close to the issue said on Monday that Germany was far from alone in opposition to the proposed levy.

"Seventeen other member states have come out in opposition," said one source, who asked not to be named.

"In view of this considerable opposition, it is clear that the European Commission must step up efforts to find a negotiated solution," the source said.

The Commission earlier confirmed that Beijing was investigating another complaint, this time against several European chemical companies for alleged dumping in China.

This is the second anti-dumping move by China against European industry in less than two weeks after a complaint against European companies making unwelded pipes.

Besides solar panels and components, the EU has said it also plans to investigate Chinese manufacturers of telecoms equipment such as giants Huawei and ZTE.

As the list of disputes has grown, so have concerns that the two sides could drift into a trade war despite hugely important ties worth more than 500 billion euros - the EU is China's largest single export market and a major supplier of goods and services.

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