Turkey and EU in Trade Row over Boron

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 217

In Turkey’s convoluted "long march" toward European Union membership, Ankara has exhibited immense patience during the accession process, which began 21 years ago, when on April 14, 1987, Turkey applied to join the EU, having been an associate member of the European Union and its predecessors since 1963. Now an EU decision on a Turkish mineralogical export has threatened to roil the economic waters still further.

The mineral in question is boron, of which Turkey has an estimated 72 percent of the world’s estimated reserves of 3 to 4 billion tons (Anadolu Ajansi, November 9). While boron and its allotropes and compounds, from boric acid to sodium tetraborate, have extensive industrial uses, including boron fibers used to reinforce metallic elements in military aircraft fuselages, their primary use, an estimated 95 percent, is in the production of glass, ceramics, cosmetics, and detergents.

Annual global consumption, including in Turkey, is 4 million tons. In 2008 Turkey expects boron exports to bring in $500 to $600 million, of which $130 to $140 million will be exported to the EU (Anadolu Ajansi, November 9).

The EU legislation that has Ankara so concerned had its genesis in 2002, when the Swedish government decided to classify borates as toxic to the human reproductive system. In February 2007 the EU Working Group on the Classification and Labeling of Dangerous Substances subsequently recommended that the EU Commission adopt a similar definition under the terms of the working group’s Directive 67/548/EEC Category 3. The EU Commission gave its assent to the recommendation in June, and on September 15 the Official Journal of the European Union published the decision, with the condition that it would take effect 20 days after publication (EBA memo on the regulatory framework for borates, European Borates Association, June 27, www.ceramfed.co.uk/Reach%2007/EBA%20Papers%20Issued%20at%20REACH%20Workshop.pdf; Zaman, November 7).

Since last year Turkey has voiced its objections several times to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and has offered to cooperate with the EU to resolve the issue, but nothing concrete has been accomplished. During a technical meeting in February with the EU, Turkey stated that it intended to raise the issue with the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Body if the classification decision were approved.

Turkish bureaucrats worry that if the EU decision becomes fully implemented, Turkey’s boron exports to the EU could shrink by 50 percent or more, meaning an annual loss of at least $65 million. Even more worrisome, Ankara believes that the decision will also have "secondary and psychological impacts" once other nations consider implementing the EU directive in their own national legislation. The directive stipulates that boron and its derivatives, containing more than 5.5 percent of boron, will be forced to carry a warning label and certain symbols such as a skull indicating the toxicity of the package’s contents (Hurriyet, November 7).

The decision comes as a blow to Turkey’s mining industry, which dreamed of becoming a global boron hub, seeing a rapidly expanding global market. The general manager of NNT Nano Teknoloji A.S., Mehmet Can Arvas, stated that boron could play an important role in reducing vehicular pollutants, saying, "Products manufactured using boron minerals decrease the amount of exhaust released by motor vehicles by 15 percent." He added optimistically, "If our company’s boron products are used in vehicles all over the world, the hole in the ozone layer will narrow in 20 years” (Anadolu Ajansi, May 26). According to Arvas, boron could also play an important role in the world’s move away from fossil fuels toward greener energy, with boron as an integral component in hydrogen-fuelled motor vehicles.

Turkey has received support for its position from other boron exporting countries, including the United States, Malaysia, Australia, Argentina, Chile, Japan, and China, which have also contacted the relevant EU bodies voicing their concerns and asking that the boron issue be reconsidered. In April Turkish Minister of State Kursad Tuzmen expressed his concern about the impending EU legislation during discussions with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and U.S. trade representative Susan Schwab during a meeting of the American-Turkish Council in Washington D.C. He told them, "The EU wants to bring a definition that will restrict boron trade. Turkey will defend its rights on the matter within the framework of the rules of the World Trade Organization” (Anadolu Ajansi, April 20).

Boron is regarded in Turkey as more than a useful element, even having strategic overtones; last year Ali Kulebi president of the Ankara-based Ulusal Guvenlik Stratejileri Arastirma Merkezi (National Security Strategies Research Center [TUSAM]) said, "21st century wars will also be for elements like boron, neptunium and uranium, which economic resources and modern technology will be in need of only when oil reserves are completely gone…" (Hurriyet, May 10, 2007).

Perceptions about boron’s strategic value have even infiltrated into popular culture. In 2004 a future military conflict between the United States and Turkey over the country’s boron resources formed the basis of the wildly popular (and anti-American) novel, Metal Firtina ("Metal Storm"), in which the U.S. military launched Operation Sevres, named after the 1921 Treaty of Sevres, to partition Turkey between Greece and Armenia while encouraging the proclamation of a Kurdish state. The Turks prevail in the end with the help of the Russians and Europeans. While such fantasies rank up there with the more lurid James Bond films, the popularity of the novel should have given Washington officials pause.

If the EU legislation is not rescinded, it will not mean the end of the Turkish boron industry. According to Eti Maden Enterprises director general Orhan Yilmaz, 63 nations worldwide purchase Turkish boron, including the United States, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Britain, Canada, China, Egypt, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Russia, and Saudi Arabia (Anadolu Ajansi, November 9). It will, however, leave bruised feelings in Turkey, adding to the belief that the EU always treats Turkey by different, harsher standards.

As Turkey and the United States are the world’s largest producers of boron, Washington could engender gratitude in Turkey while protecting its own interests by dropping discreet hints into the “Eurocrats’” ears in Brussels that the new legislation might merit further review, being one of those rare occasions when the U.S. using its influence with the EU could also further its image in the Middle East by placing a much-needed band-aid on its bruised relations with its old ally.