The European Commission said Tuesday it was studying a French request to speed up procedures that could see the European Union imposing import quotas on Chinese textile products.
European Union trade ministers on Monday endorsed a full investigation into allegations that cheap textiles and clothing from China were flooding the EU market.
However they disagreed on quick action to bloc the imports, with France taking a lead in calling for "emergency measures." The written request from France calls for the EU to speed up the investigation process and start formal consultations with China on the issue.
"We'll examine how we might be able to speed things up," said Claude Veron-Reville, trade spokeswoman at the EU's head office. "We'll endeavor to accelerate the inquiry period as much as possible."
The 25 EU nations are divided down the middle over whether to re-impose textile quotas lifted at the start of the year under a World Trade Organization agreement.
Textile producers such as France, Italy and Portugal say safeguard measures are needed to protect the local industry from surging Chinese imports. Britain, Sweden and others are concerned new restrictions on imports will hit clothing retailers hard.
The French request is for the EU to scrap an initial two-month phase of its investigation which involves informal consultations with the Chinese. It wants EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson to quickly start formal talks with the Chinese.
Under WTO rules, these can take up to 90 days. But if Europe deems China is not helping to solve the issue and risks causing irreparable damage to the European industry, it can hoist emergency trade barriers within 15 days.
Such a move would need backing for EU nations under the bloc's complex voting system, which gives countries a weighted vote depending on the size of their populations.
On a visit to Hong Kong Tuesday, Mandelson urged China to impose more self restraint on textiles and clothing exports to avoid EU action.
"It's in China's own interest to take the necessary action to avoid formal safeguard measures," he said during a brief stopover in Hong Kong before making official visits to Vietnam, Thailand and Singapore.
"I hope China will shoulder further sense of responsibility on top of the welcome action it has already taken," Mandelson told Dow Jones Newswires.
Chinese textile exports to the European Union and the United States have soared since a worldwide quota system expired on Jan. 1.
The EU said its investigation covers nine categories of clothing and textiles, including T-shirts, pullovers and women's overcoats. It cited statistics from the first four months of this year that showed there "was cause for serious concern."
Under terms of China's admission to the WTO in 2001, countries are legally entitled to limit Chinese textile imports through 2008. However in the face of French demands for quick action, Veron-Reville warned Monday that the EU has to act with caution to avoid a legal challenge from China.
PAUL AMES, Associated Press Writer