15 Dec 2010 / 08:40

Turkey-EU row stymies Serb export deal

Aleksandra Stankovic
Belgrade

A 3m euro beef export deal between Serbia’s impoverished Sandzak region and Turkey has been blocked because of a trade dispute between Ankara and the EU.

Beef from the impoverished Sandzak region will not yet be served at Turkish dining tables because of a long-running trade disagreement between Ankara and the European Union (EU).

Turkish officials had signed a 3m euro beef export deal with the major of Sjenica, a town in the south-western Sandzak region that borders Bosnia, Montenegro and Kosovo, on August 20 this year. Around 600 tonnes of beef was to be transported to Turkey within the first two months alone.

However, the Sjenica deal has been put on hold because of EU objections to Turkey’s refusal to fully lift restrictions on beef and live cattle imports from Europe. Ankara originally imposed strict meat import controls in 1996 following the European ‘mad cow disease’ crisis.

Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), has been linked to the fatal human brain-wasting ailment called variant Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease (vCJD).

Mad cow disease (BSE)*

* Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) is a transmissible, fatal brain disease of cattle that first came to the attention of UK scientists in 1986.  

 * Scientific studies suggest that contaminated cattle feed prepared from bovine tissues, such as brain and spinal cord, caused the outbreak.

* Between 1986 and 2010, 184,607 cases of BSE were confirmed in the UK.

* Since 1989, BSE cases (in total 5,808) have also been reported in cattle mainly in six countries: France, Germany, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland.

* The most likely cause of the human infection vCJD is believed to be the consumption of contaminated beef products.

* Measures taken to prevent the spread of BSE across Europe include a ban of the use of ruminant proteins in the preparation of animal feed and also on the use of bovine offal in the food chain.

* WHO says the crisis has now been controlled in Europe.

*Source: World Health Organisation 

During the peak of the crisis from 1996 to 2002, 139 people were infected with vCJD, of that number 129 were recorded in the UK alone, believed to be the source of the outbreak and the country with the greatest number of BSE and vCJD cases, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Most of the infected died. In the UK alone, 118 people died of probable vCJD between 1996 and 2002.

Since then, the number of infections has consistently declined. In the last 8 years, 82 cases of suspected vCJD have been recorded, mostly in Europe. Only one person survived.

WHO figures show 190,415 of cattle were infected and eventually destroyed worldwide.

The embargo on UK exports of live cattle, beef and beef products was lifted on March 8, 2006. Other restrictions on EU countries have also been lifted. For example, the embargo on Portuguese beef was lifted in September 2004. However, Turkey maintains a partial ban on beef and live exports from EU countries.

EU block a ‘surprise’

The former Turkish ambassador to Belgrade, Suha Umar, who left his post in September, said he was “surprised” by EU moves to scupper the deal with Serbia.

“We are talking about thousands of tonnes of meat. The transport should have already started, but it didn’t because, to my surprise, the EU is trying to block it,” he told Balkan Insight.

Umar claims the EU is “trying to use some arrangements between Turkey and the EU by saying that if Turkey is buying meat from Serbia, it should buy meat from every single European country”.

“This doesn’t make sense, but this is the European way of thinking. But we are determined to cooperate with Serbia. We are determined to help Serbia to recover. We want peace and stability,” he said.

Ankara is keen to invest in the troubled, majority-Muslim Sandzak region which has strong links to Turkey. Numerous Sandzak residents have relatives living in Turkey, as many emigrated during the 1912-13 Balkans War as the Ottoman Empire began to decline.

 Sandzak was also hit hard by international economic sanctions imposed on Serbia under the Milosevic regime and poor economic management by successive central governments.

The region has also suffered from controversial privatisation schemes that led to the closure of some industries, competition from Asian manufacturing and textile industries and political unrest between local religious and political leaders.

3m ‘means a lot for’ Sandzak

In addition, Sandzak still suffers from very high levels of poverty and unemployment. More than 50 per cent of the working population in Sandzak is officially registered unemployed.

Sjenica is an underdeveloped town, but its unpolluted atmosphere makes it ideal for breeding cattle. The first meat export deal was to have been only the beginning of long-term cooperation.

Muriz Turkovic, mayor of Sjenica, confirmed that preparations to begin the transport of meat were now on standby until their Turkish trading partners resolved the meat import issues.

“Three million euro means a lot for our poor municipality. I am hoping that, if the deal is cancelled, Turkey will help Sjenica to export the meat to another… country.”

However, a spokeswoman from the European Commission’s Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy department denied it had made any moves to block beef exports from Serbia to Turkey.

Instead, she said the commission has simply requested that Turkey allows – as stipulated by Ankara-EU trade agreements – reciprocal preferential access to agricultural goods. The Sandzak deal is regarded as a further breach, in addition to the continued restrictions on imports from the EU, of these trading terms.

“The restrictions imposed by Turkey… are not compliant with international standards and represent a major, unjustified barrier to trade.

Therefore the EU has been calling consistently on Turkey to respect our mutual agreement on trade of agricultural goods and lift the ban from all [EU] member states without delay,” the commission spokeswoman said.

Local Turkish newspapers have reported that Ankara, following a huge spike in domestic meat prices, had to approve the partial liberalisation of imports of livestock for the first time in 12 years.

According to the same local press reports, Turkish traders are looking to import from countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, Mongolia, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Russia, Bulgaria, Moldova and Belarus are also seen as potential trade partners.

However, according to the EC Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy unit, Turkey has to fulfil obligations arising from the customs union agreement, by which Turkey must import 19,000 tons of red meat and 6,000 tons of livestock for slaughter from EU member states.

Turkey ‘protecting its markets’

While Turkey partially lifted the ban in 2010 and now imports a limited amount of beef meat and live cattle from some EU countries, the commission expects Ankara to import from all EU member states, the commission spokeswoman confirmed.

Fadi Hakura, an expert on Turkey’s EU accession bid and a fellow at the UK-based think tank Chatham House, said that Ankara’s continued reluctance to fully lift strict controls on beef and live cattle imports is, at least partially, motivated by fears that opening its markets would see EU producers dominate and undermine domestic meat producers.

“However, recently meat prices have increased and the Turkish government has sought a short-term solution to stabilise prices. For this reason, it temporarily liberalised the import regime for meat and distributed importing licenses in the meat sector,” Hakura said.

“Serbia doesn’t constitute a threat given the size of the country and its limited export capacities. For this reason, meat import licences have lately been granted to Serbia but not to EU countries.”

Hakura added that Turkey’s continued restrictions on meat imports from the EU could be considered as a ‘tit for tat’ measure given the slow progress of Ankara’s long-standing EU membership bid.

While noting the importance of the European agricultural lobby, he also warned that while Europe continues to drag its feet on Turkey’s accession to the EU, there is “no incentive for Turkey to make any further efforts to liberalise its agricultural market”.

Celine Antonini contributed to this report

Fellow Bio

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Aleksandra Stankovic

Aleksandra Stankovic was born in 1973 in Pirot, Serbia. She graduated in 1997 in Arabic language and literature from the Faculty of philology at Belgrade University

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Turkey and the Balkans

The re-emergence of Turkey as a growing economic, political and religious power in the Balkans is the subject of the latest Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence Alumni Initiative project.

Meet the Journalists

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Altin Raxhimi

Altin Raxhimi from Tirana, Albania, is an experienced journalist currently working freelance from Albania for a host of English-language publications, including BIRN, www.reportingproject.net, Inter-Press Service and The Chicago Tribune

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Lavdim Hamidi

Lavdim Hamidi was born in 1982 in Trnovac and is currently living and working in Kosovo. He is an experienced economics reporter and works for the daily newspaper, Zeri

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Gjergj Erebara

Gjergj Erebara was born in 1979 in Tirana, Albania. He has been specialized in economic reporting and currently works as journalist in “Shqip” daily published in Tirana and BalkanInsight.com publication.

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Aleksandra Stankovic

Aleksandra Stankovic was born in 1973 in Pirot, Serbia. She graduated in 1997 in Arabic language and literature from the Faculty of philology at Belgrade University

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Yana Buhrer Tavanier

Yana Buhrer Tavanier is a freelance journalist and a human rights activist based in Sofia, Bulgaria. Previously she was editor of weekly Capital, and worked as a journalist for Tema magazine and daily Dnevnik.

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