Trade dispute erodes Turkish interest to join EU

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) -- A trade dispute is eroding Turkey's already fading interest to join the European Union, as the debate over EU restrictions on exports of a little-known mineral takes on unexpected political significance.

Ankara is preparing to petition the World Trade Organization to reverse an EU directive which could slash Turkey's exports of borates mineral, but while the economic weight of the issue is rather limited, political interests in Turkey have pounced upon the issue as an example of Europe's disregard for the country.

Turkey's talks to enter the EU are already on a slow track because of its delays in passing reforms, addressing the long simmering dispute over divided Cyprus and opposition from some EU members to its membership.

Beyond the economic impact of the trade dispute, the issue is garnering attention as it pushes anti-EU sentiment in Turkey closer to a breaking point.

Generations of Turks have grown up with stories of the strategic importance of the country's reserves of borates, a white powder that dissolves easily in water and which is a component of many detergents and cosmetics. With two thirds of the world's borates reserves, Turkey is trying to expand the resource's use beyond these traditional products - it is now being used for everything from armor for military vehicles to space and nuclear technologies and is even being marketed as a potential base for hydrogen fuel.

Many in the country fear that an EU decision to label borates as toxic - which would require a warning label on products - will hamper the use and exploration of the mineral, stunting Turkey's exports and dimming its influence on the world economic stage.

"I don't think the EU made this decision unintentionally. They want to destroy Turkey's borates market this way," said Tacidar Seyhan, a member of the parliament's industry and energy commission. "They want to force Turkey to end state monopoly on borates and privatize mining and marketing of it."

Energy Minister Hilmi Guler this month vowed to fight against the EU restrictions, and media headlines such as "EU obstacle to borates" are helping nationalist Turks to stifle support for the EU as some accuse it of having a political agenda.

"We should question every move by the EU," said Bulent Irkkan, a private financial adviser. "We should be very careful."

Despite such rhetoric, the European Commission's spokeswoman Krisztina Nagy in Brussels said it was unlikely that the issue would prove to be an obstacle to the country's membership. "There is plenty of time to settle such issues before Turkey concludes accession," she said.

The accession talks are expected to last years.

Sait Akman, an EU analyst at Istanbul's Marmara University said the debate over the country's borate reserves has been blown out of proportion. He said that because there has been little real progress in EU accession negotiations since talks began three years ago, minor issues have taken on added importance in the debate.

"Sometimes perceptions are stronger than facts," Akman said. "In this case, it could negatively affect support to the EU."

The EU has increased the toxic classification of boric acid and sodium borates, derived from borate mineral. The reclassification, which has been effective since October, requires warning labels on boric acid and other products containing it.

Guler said the EU doesn't have scientific evidence that boric acid poses risk to human health, noting the United States does not classify it at the same toxic level as the EU and that Turkey has been using boric acid for generations.

A senior Turkish trade official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said he met in mid-November with independent legal experts to seek advise to petition the Geneva-based World Trade Organization against the EU's decision to classify borates as toxic.

He said Turkey could argue that the EU directive is in violation of the organization's laws which say "...technical regulations shall not be more trade-restrictive than necessary..."

Turkish leaders will make a final decision on petitioning the WTO after legal consultations, the trade official said.

Turkey fears that the EU directive could force importers of borates to shift to alternative products, eventually pushing them to stop buying borates for good.

"But we don't think that glass, ceramics and detergent sectors in Europe can easily replace borates," said Orhan Yilmaz, head of Eti Mining, the state-run borates exporter.

Turkey's total borate exports are expected to exceed $500 million (euro395 million) this year. More than one-fourth of those exports goes to Europe, but Turkey fears that the dispute with the EU could also affect sales to other countries. Yilmaz says Turkey hopes to double the exports soon.

But regardless of the economic side of the trade dispute, as long as the issue is not solved it threatens to add to the general public's negative image of the EU, weakening political support for accession.

"Turkey has lots of precious mines, the EU is carrying out such campaigns to prevent Turkey's development," said Rezzan Etili, the owner of an advertisement company in Ankara.

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Associated Press Writers Bradley S. Klapper in Geneva and Gulden Alp in Ankara contributed to this report.

(This version CORRECTS Corrects contributor's surname to Bradley.)

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