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EU solar-panel makers file China lawsuit

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European solar panel manufacturers have escalated their legal campaign against Chinese rivals by filing a fresh trade complaint in Brussels accusing them of receiving illegal government subsidies.

The anti-subsidy complaint comes just weeks after the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, roiled trade relations with Beijing by opening a separate anti-dumping investigation against the Chinese companies.

That case covered exports to the EU worth €21bn in 2011, making it the bloc’s largest ever by a wide margin and provoking angry reactions from China.

The new complaint, led by Germany’s SolarWorld, restates many of the same allegations: chiefly, that Chinese solar manufacturers relied on limitless access to cheap government financing to remain afloat even as they sold their products below cost in the EU.

“Most Chinese solar companies would have gone bankrupt a long time ago if not for endless government subsidies. Meanwhile, over 20 major European solar manufacturers have become insolvent in 2012 alone,” said Milan Nitzschke, who is president of EU ProSun, the coalition of companies that brought the case, and also a SolarWorld executive.

The complaint requests tariffs against imported Chinese solar products. Its filing coincided with the release of new data from Bloomberg New Energy Finance claiming that China Development Bank has extended €33bn in credit lines to 12 Chinese solar companies since 2010.

This year, Washington imposed anti-dumping and anti-subsidy duties of roughly 31 per cent on imported Chinese solar panels. That move was also triggered by a SolarWorld-led complaint.

Chinese solar companies have denied receiving illegal subsidies. Meanwhile, Beijing has expressed its displeasure over the solar dispute to EU governments and political leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Under EU law, the Commission has 45 days to decide whether the new complaint merits a formal investigation

Anti-subsidy cases are much rarer in Europe than anti-dumping cases – in part because they are more difficult to prove, according to trade lawyers.

By launching twin complaints, the EU companies could ultimately win higher tariffs against their Chinese competitors. The anti-subsidy complaint may also gain more traction among the EU’s northern member states, many of whom believe that the bloc’s anti-dumping procedures have been abused.

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