The European Union moved closer to new rules to protect its manufacturers from cheaper Asian imports on Wednesday (29 September) when a committee backed plans to label products from outside the bloc by their country of origin.
Imported shoes, clothes, leather, furniture, ceramics and high-tech steel products worth billions of euros will have to carry a label that shows where they were made when sold in the EU, according to a committee vote by the European Parliament.
"European consumers want to know what they are buying, where it is coming from and under which conditions [such as respect for the environment, human and social rights] the product was made," the Parliament's Socialists and Democrats group said in a statement following the ballot.
The vote, cast by 23 lawmakers in a specialist trade committee, opens the way for negotiations between EU lawmakers and national diplomats on full legislation.
The negotiations are expected to be lengthy and highlight divisions among EU lawmakers and member states, pitting representatives of countries that have large manufacturing bases against those that mainly import and distribute foreign goods.
Countries including Italy, Spain and Portugal have long pushed for mandatory 'Made In' labels, which they hope will act as a brake on growing low-cost imports, whether Chinese furniture and roof tiles, Indian clothes or Vietnamese shoes.
Opposing them are distribution-heavy states such as Sweden and Britain, which are concerned about red tape and falling profits and want optional labelling to continue.
The issue is being watched closely in Asia. Italy last year promised to stop demanding tariffs on Chinese and Vietnamese shoes – which hurt EU ties with one of its biggest trade partners – on the condition that the EU eventually introduce obligatory 'Made In' labels.
The debate is likely to be a long one, since it will have to set guidelines on what constitutes an EU-made shoe or an Indian tablecloth, an increasingly difficult task in a world where manufacturing processes are globally integrated.
It is also likely to reopen debate on whether 'Made In' labelling should be mandatory only for consumer products or for industrial goods as well, as the European Parliament wants.
Campaigning for a change to the labelling regime, Europe's largest ceramics and leather industry groups said yesterday that 'Made In' would establish a level playing field for EU firms.
They pointed out that many of the EU's main trading partners, including China, the United States and Japan already require mandatory origin marking for imported goods.
Parliament's 736 members are due to vote on the issue in mid-December.
(EURACTIV with Reuters.)