After months of speculation, the European Union today confirmed it is to impose protective duties on imports of leather shoes from China and Vietnam after finding evidence that the Asian nations are unfairly dumping footwear on European markets.

European trade commissioner Peter Mandelson has recommended provisional duties of 19.4% for China and 16.8% for Vietnam.

This duty will be phased in over a period of five months, beginning at about 4%, in an attempt to avoid the 'bra wars' problems encountered by clothing retailers last summer when goods in transit were suddenly faced with an unexpected full tariff at the border.

The ruling nevertheless means that after five months a full duty will be in place. There will be no quantitative limit on imports of leather shoes from Vietnam and China.

Mandelson also confirmed that hi-tech sports shoes and children's shoes would be excluded from the measures.

The nine-month EU investigation is said to have found compelling evidence of serious state intervention in the leather footwear sector in China and Vietnam - cheap finance, tax holidays, non-market land rents, improper asset valuation.

The investigations also showed that Chinese leather footwear is being sold in Europe at about 80% of its normal value, and Vietnamese shoes are being sold at about 50% of their normal value.

The EU said imports of leather shoes from China soared 320% in the 12 months up to March 2005 to 950m pairs. Vietnamese imports grew 700% to 120m pairs over the same period.

Protective measures were initially demanded by European shoe manufacturers, but are violently opposed by retailers and importers who warn they will push up prices on the high street.

Horst Widmann, president of the Federation of the European Sporting Goods Industry (FESI), said: "Under anti-dumping rules, footwear brands and the retail sector are forced to reflect the cost of the duties in their sales prices.

"There is no doubt that consumer prices will rise by up to 20% if anti-dumping duties of such magnitude as proposed by the European Commission are imposed."

The European Commission, however, is playing down warnings from retailers and importers that tariffs will lead to big price increases for consumers.

"The average import price for footwear subject to this investigation is about EUR8.5," it says. "The average retail price is about EUR35, although shoes in this category can retail for much more.

"At the average retail price an anti-dumping duty represents about 7% of the average sale price. If the burden of the duty is equally shared by all intermediaries in the supply chain, the cost of a pair of EUR35 shoes would rise by less than EUR1."

Mandelson is also launching talks with China and Vietnam to try to rectify the dumping of leather shoes in the European market.