EU government representatives have voted to impose two-year import duties on Chinese and Vietnamese shoes, ending months of negotiations and disagreements.

Beginning Friday (6 October), the compromise agreement will cover 11 out of every 100 leather pairs of shoes sold in Europe.

Shoe importers will now pay a 16.5% tariff on Chinese-made shoes and 10% on Vietnamese ones.

The scheme replaces a temporary scheme of higher duties, which is due to end on Thursday. It follows an original plan of duties for up to five years, which had caused much criticism from some members of the 25-member EU bloc.

Advocates of the deal such as Spain, France and Italy argue duties are necessary to stop the deterioration of their shoe sectors, which they say are coming under unfair competitive pressure from cheap Asian imports.

Supporters accuse China and Vietnam of selling footwear to Europe below domestic prices and below the cost of production

Imports of Chinese leather shoes were up ten-fold between 2001 and 2005 while the average unit price dropped 36.4%.

Meanwhile, European shoe production has plummeted 30% since 2001 and half of all shoes sold in the EU last year were made in China, according to Eurostat.

However, China and Vietnam argue the duties are unnecessary, protectionist and against the ethics of free trade.

Sweden and the UK back this, arguing that duties will only lead to higher prices for retailers and consumers.

British Retail Consortium director general Kevin Hawkins said: " It will push up prices for customers and add to the costs of struggling retailers.

"Less than a month ago it looked like this planned piece of protectionism was bound for the scrap heap where it belonged.

"You can only wonder at what sort of murky deals have been done to get this over the line."

The BRC, and other organisations such as the Federation of the European Sporting Goods Industry, argue the duties are aimed at helping out struggling and incompetent European producers who will eventually collapse anyway.

"Europe cannot declare lofty goals about becoming a modern and dynamic economy and at the same time shield inefficient manufacturers from global competition," said Horst Widmann, FESI president. "Today's decision hurts competitiveness, growth, employment and consumer welfare while helping no-one."

FESI spokesman Christian Kaufholz told just-style last week: "Rather than trying to hurt competitiveness, the sector should address problems directly."

Coinciding with the final vote, the EU has published a strategy detailing how trade policy can help Europe's growth and competitiveness.

Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson's office promised to open up new foreign markets and warned against protectionism.

By Rebecca Danton.