Britain offers Italy secret deal on China trade

London, September 23 :

The British government has secretly offered to support Italy’s demand for punitive tariffs on cheap Chinese shoes in exchange for Italian backing for Britain’s long work hours, a newspaper said on Saturday.

Britain’s exemption from the European Union’s directive on work hours — key to Britains flexible labor market — appears to have EU backing by only a narrow majority of the 25 member states, the Financial Times said.

But, it said, the move to drop its free-trade principles in the shoe dispute suggests Britain fears that other EU states could try to scrap its “opt-out” from Europes maximum 48-hour work week during debate on it in November.

Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodis new center-left government told Britain this year that Italy was withdrawing its support, leaving Britain relying on Germany and the unstable Polish coalition as its main backers.

The Financial Times quoted sources as saying Britain wanted to lure Prodi back by offering to support an Italian-led protectionist bloc of EU countries that wants anti-dumping duties on Chinese and Vietnamese shoes.

Italy has refused to give Britain written guarantees it wants on working hours.

Socialists in Prodis coalition believe Britain’s work hours “opt out” exploits workers and gives Britain an unfair advantage over countries where the 48-hour limit applies, it said.

Italy’s trade minister Emma Bonino is trying now to forge a majority among EU countries to support duties on Chinese shoes without Britain, it said.