HONG KONG — The European Commission’s investigation of solar-panel imports from China was the world’s biggest antidumping case ever when it began in September, signaling a new willingness in Brussels to challenge China’s extensive assistance to favored export-oriented industries.
But the case ended with a whimper Saturday and illuminated deep divisions in Europe — and how good the Chinese are at exploiting those differences. The European Commission said Saturday that it had settled the case in exchange for a pledge from China not to export solar panels for less than 74 cents a watt, a price about 25 percent lower even than when the case began. The commission also decided to forgo imposing the steep tariffs on Chinese solar panels it had threatened.
The deal could end up strengthening the fractured Chinese solar panel industry and sending a wave of cheaper Chinese panels to the United States.
Trade experts said the European Commission’s meager outcome, in a case covering 6 percent of China’s exports to Europe, showed that while Brussels might have had a strong case in terms of law or economics, it was fatally weak from the beginning at the political level. Those political weaknesses increased as China’s leaders traveled repeatedly to European capitals and lobbied aggressively and successfully to divide Europe on the issue.
European makers of solar panels were furious about receiving so little after a year of litigation, and vowed to sue. The European settlement also undermined Obama administration officials, who had taken a tough stance toward China on solar panel trade and had tried for months to persuade European leaders to side with them.
After nearly a full day of silence from Washington, the administration issued a thinly veiled criticism late Saturday of Europe’s decision to cut its own deal.
“We believe there needs to be a global solution, consistent with our trade laws, that creates stability and certainty in the various components of the solar sector,” said Michael Froman, the US trade representative.
Li Junfeng, a senior Chinese government policy maker, said the deal was good for China and the European Union. China has captured close to 80 percent of the European market for solar panels during the past several years, with exports that reached $27 billion in 2011, before the trade battle began. China has expanded its industry using massive loans from state-owned banks as well as cheap land and other incentives from government agencies.
Industry executives expect China’s market share to fall to between 60 and 70 percent with the minimum price agreed on Saturday.
The politics of the trade case were unusual from the start. In most European trade cases regarding imports, the main country in Europe making the same product energetically favors protection from subsidized imports. Other European countries tend to like low-cost imports and be less enthusiastic about imposing tariffs.
The European solar panel industry is concentrated in Germany, and has felt the brunt of the effect of lower prices, yet the German government emerged as the biggest critic of confronting China on solar panel exports. Chancellor Angela Merkel opposed the trade case from the beginning, saying it would be preferable to continue talking with Chinese officials. Solar panel makers in Germany tend to be independent companies, not part of industrial powerhouses like Volkswagen.
Germany has had far more success in exporting to China than any other European country, particularly in shipping factory equipment, and Merkel has sought to cultivate a special relationship with Beijing.
Most big German companies were unenthusiastic about the trade case, fearing that it could lead to a broader trade war that might hurt German exports.
“A tit-for-tat policy will more destabilize than help us,” said Martin Brudermüller, vice chairman of the German chemicals giant BASF, at a news conference in Hong Kong last month.
The German government not only opposed the case but rallied other European governments to join them.
China helped Germany do so by threatening to impose tariffs on imports of European wine if the European Commission imposed steep tariffs on Chinese solar panels — a threat that appalled France, although the risk of any actual imposition of tariffs seemed to recede with Saturday’s deal.
Ocean Yuan, the founder and chief executive of Grape Solar, a solar panel distributor in Eugene, Ore., said the minimum price per watt was lower than what the Chinese government had expected, as some in Beijing had anticipated that Brussels would drive a tougher bargain.
But the deal has divided the Chinese solar industry, upsetting many small manufacturers, said Yuan, whose long career in the Chinese and American solar industries has given him a broad range of contacts.
A vast quantity of solar panels, produced by companies that have already gone bankrupt from selling panels below cost or are close to doing so, is available at discounted prices.
Sales in Europe at such low prices will be banned under Saturday’s agreement.
Customers are only likely to pay the new minimum price for the highest-quality solar panels with the best warranties, giving an advantage to the largest Chinese manufacturers.
That is consistent with the Chinese government’s goal of thinning its nation’s solar panel industry to produce a few world-leading companies that can set high, profitable prices.
Out of 140 Chinese solar panel exporters, 50 refused to accept the minimum price, which means that they will face a prohibitive 47.6 percent tariff on any further shipments to the European Union.
Since the US Commerce Department imposed tariffs totaling only 31 percent last spring, the European Union’s settlement could have the effect of sending another wave of extremely low-priced Chinese solar panels without warranties toward the United States instead.
“The terms may be set with the EU, but we all know that China’s excess production will continue to be targeted at other markets — the US and elsewhere,” said Michael Wessel, a longtime trade lawyer in Washington who has advised the United Steelworkers union on solar panels.
“Rather than abide by the terms of its WTO commitments, once again China has bullied others into submission.”