BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union has cleared the imposition of hefty duties on Chinese imports of glass used in solar panels, claiming they receive illegal subsidies and are sold at unfairly low prices that threaten European manufacturers.
The EU solar glass market is valued at less than 200 million euros (164.7 million pounds), a tiny fraction of the EU's total imports from China worth 290 billion euros in 2012, but the complaint marks an EU challenge to China and its exporters.
A majority of the European Union's 28 members backed the proposed duties, ranging from 17.1 percent to 42.1 percent, according to EU sources.
The imports are already subject to provisional duties at these levels, imposed by the European Commission in November, but they required clearance from the EU's member states to extend the duration of the duties to five years.
The definite duties are due to take effect by the end of May.
Less than a year ago, the European Union and China settled a far larger trade dispute over alleged dumping of and subsidies for solar panels and components from China - totalling 21 billion euros in 2011.
The Commission initially proposed heavy duties in that case, but, facing dissent from a majority of EU member states, ended up agreeing to let in a certain volume at a fixed price.
In a sign of easing tensions, Beijing last month ended investigations into imports of EU wine and polysilicon, while Brussels partially defused a long-running dispute over telecoms by dropping part of its complaint.
The solar glass investigation follows a complaint from EU ProSun Glass, a group of producers led by EU sector leader GMB of Germany, which said Chinese peers had a manufacturing capacity twice as big as total global demand.
The Commission has previously said that average import prices from China fell by 27 percent from 2009 to 2012 and its share of the EU market expanded to 29 percent from 6 percent.
The complainant, whose members say they represent more than half of EU solar glass production, had said duties of up to 100 percent were required to bring Chinese prices of around 4 euros per square metre to a breakeven level of 7 to 9 euros. ($1 = 0.7234 Euros)
(Reporting By Philip Blenkinsop. Editing by Jane Merriman)