The European Union's anti-dumping policy will be under the microscope over the next six months, as a series of cases look set to test the EU's laisser faire, free market credentials.
After a period of relative calm, 1998 has already witnessed one controversial case on personal fax machines, and there are more on the horizon.
Philippe De Baere, a lawyer with anti-dumping specialists Van Bael and Bellis, said: "'There is a big rumour that the US authorities are about to open a broad investigation into the import of Asian Dram memory chips. If the US opens an investigation, all those exporters will simply divert their activity to Europe. I think we will see some new anti-dumping cases here before Christmas."
In fact, the pre-Christmas period could well be a nervous time for more than just the proverbial turkeys, as most electronics sector observers are predicting that the full effects of the Asian financial crisis will be apparent by the end of the year.
A senior official from the European Commission's anti-dumping unit said: "Everybody is speculating about the Asian crisis at the moment, but it is still too early. The thing to remember about anti-dumping is that you need a reference period, so you can make price comparisons. I do not think you can make a fair comparison until later this year."
While the Commission is prepared to let economic nature take its course, European semiconductor manufacturers appear to be less patient.
The European Electronic Component Manufacturers Association (EECA) has been collecting data on Dram imports from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan since the beginning of the year. EECA's secretary general, Eckhard Runge, said a decision on whether to file a complaint at the EC will be taken before the end of June.
The history of Dram duties in Europe is particularly enlightening, as it contains every element of the complicated debate on EU anti-dumping policy.
Faced with intense competition from Japan, European manufacturers repeatedly called on the Commission to impose tariffs. In 1990, it obliged, but not before Japanese manufacturers had upped their share of the European market from 25 per cent to 70 per cent between 1983 and 1990.
The EC extended its anti-dumping provisions to include South Korean manufacturers in 1993, until a worldwide shortage in 1995 forced Dram prices up, and forced the Commission to suspend the tariffs.
However, with the international Dram supply normalised, concerted lobbying from EECA helped to persuade the EC to reimpose the duties in April 1997. What happened next has been described as "curious, and only vaguely legal" by one legal expert close to the case.
Direct negotiations between the EECA and its Japanese and South Korean counterparts, the Electronic Industry Association of Japan, and the Korean Semiconductor Industry Association, resulted in industry-to-industry pacts to prevent dumping and share market information.
The agreements were finalised last December when Japanese concerns about who would hold the confidential financial data were resolved. This settlement led EECA to recommend that the duties be dropped once more.
But the dramatic fluctuation of Dram prices between 1994 and 1996, not an uncommon occurrence in the hi-tech sector, left the Commission in a difficult position.
But the EU/Japan/South Korea industry deals to lodge domestic and export prices with neutral financial auditors were welcomed by the EC as a sensible way around a sensitive problem.
"It is a bit shaky on strictly legal grounds, but it provides a quick decision mechanism. If another complaint arises the Commission can access the information it needs without the time consuming investigation. It is a fast track anti-dumping measure," said De Baere.
Unfortunately, the agreement has not lived up to its advance press, as the EECA's present deliberations on whether to file a new complaint would seem to suggest.
De Baere said the real problem for the EECA is that Taiwanese manufacturers are not included in the agreement. Any new investigation into Taiwanese Dram export prices would require the usual nine months.
Somewhat inevitably, Dram duties mean Europe's consumer electronics and IT equipment manufacturers pay higher prices for components. The dichotomy between the needs of components manufacturers and the interests of equipment producers has been central to the wider European debate on anti-dumping tariffs.
In his recent study on 'The IT revolution and European Employment' Walter Eltis, a leading UK economics professor, has explored the "inherent tension" between the conflicting needs of components producers and components users.
Citing the recent example of an investigation into unbleached cotton fabric from the East, Eltis said the divide between the national interests of EU member states was indicative of a larger problem.
In geographic terms, the cotton case pitched northern versus southern Europe, but the real argument was between those that needed protection from cheaper foreign competition, and those that wanted the lowest possible prices so that they could compete on the international stage.
The highly controversial personal fax machine case can be seen as a perfect example of how political the anti-dumping issue has become, with member states voting in line with domestic business interests.
The decision to impose varying levels of duties on imports from the Far East, came after the narrowest of votes at the member state level in April this year.
The complainant, and main EU producer, the Dutch based consumer electronics giant Philips, successfully lobbied the Dutch government to back the Commission's anti-dumping proposals. It also gained the Austrian vote, due to the fact that Philips claimed 370 jobs were at stake at the company's fax plant in Austria.
Allegations of deals for votes by member states looking for support in the unbleached cotton case, which came up at the same time, have also added to the controversy.
A Brussels based lawyer, who represented a number of the Japanese companies under investigation, said the fax case was representative of EC tactics in high profile dumping cases.
"The pattern that we are seeing in these types of cases is that the commission takes a very tough stance at the provisional stage. This gives them a bargaining chip later on. The fax case became a bit of circus," he said.
However, although the Commission got the result it wanted, it was forced to make "unpublished concessions" to review the dumping allegations against Japanese and Singaporean companies, he said.
The Commission flatly denied any allegation of horse trading, or concessions for reviews beyond what is ordinarily carried out in any dumping investigation.
A Commission spokesman said: "We work within a very strict legal framework. There is no room for manoeuvre on our part, and there was certainly no horse trading. The key to this case was the clear definition of what we were talking about. We intentionally focused on a specific type, size and weight of fax machine, by setting unambiguous limits. Definition is always important, and in this case more than most."
A Philips source close to the affair, who stressed that he was not a spokesman for Philips, agreed with the Commission's view, and said that it was a relatively open and shut case.
"Once the Japanese knew a complaint was coming they circulated a report around the EU member states which made a number of unconnected allegations about us, and tried to confuse the issue," he said.
Japanese claims that the Philips complaint was inspired by anxieties about superior Asian technology were completely unfounded, and threats about potential job losses in Asian owned factories in Europe were "blackmail", he claimed.
In the meantime, expert opinion is divided on whether devalued currencies and depressed domestic markets in the Far East automatically mean that Europe should brace itself for a wave of below cost imports.
In fact, because Asian electronics companies have always used the US dollar for purchasing materials, and setting export prices, their position has not changed, despite the devaluation of the local currency.
Also, the current uncertainty in most Asian economies would make any charge of dumping in Europe, which is based on price comparisons, very difficult to prove. One lawyer in Brussels even said this would be a good time for Asian companies to ask for refunds on their duties.
Furthermore, the Commission's desire to avoid initiating anti-dumping procedures is genuine. As initiatives continue at the World Trade Organisation level, and within the G8 meetings, to reduce barriers to free trade, the days of a 'Fortress Europe' policy have passed.
As an EC official said: "'This is not an instrument of EU industrial policy, and we are certainly not seeking cases."
However, there are fears that as the region's notorious over capacity problems are exacerbated by diminishing domestic demand, the temptation to dump excess stock abroad will be too much to resist.
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