By Maytaal Angel and Ceyda Caglayan
LONDON/ANKARA (Reuters) - The European Commission's move to extend its steel import restrictions threatens to force Turkish mills, already buckling under the weight of U.S. tariffs, to cut production further or in some cases close down, sources said.
The Commission said on Wednesday it will extend and beef up its existing "safeguard" steel import caps until July 2021 to counter concerns that European Union markets are being flooded with steel no longer being exported to the United States.
For Turkey's vast steel sector, the fourth largest contributor to the country's economy, the caps could prove particularly painful as the EU has given it additional "country-specific" quotas.
Under the safeguards, Turkey has a tariff-free quota for rebar, a construction steel that makes up most of its steel exports, of around 300,000 tonnes for the first nine months of the respective quota periods, down 60 percent from its 2018 exports.
Country-specific restrictions do not apply in the last three months of the quota periods and Turkey could make up some sales then, but its annual export levels will still be sharply lower.
"Our export markets have disappeared, the local market hardly exists, we've got lots of capacity and no market," said a London-based Turkish steel trader.
He added that hopes the United States would soon cut its 50 percent tariff on Turkish steel imports were also fading given it is demanding that in return, Ankara hold fire on Kurdish forces in Syria, something Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan cannot do ahead of local elections.
Major Turkish mills such as Cebitas and Ekinciler said they had, before the EU announcement, already slashed output while Koc Metalurji said it had stopped output for about a month.
Jefferies estimates EU caps on rebar from all countries combined should reduce its total rebar imports by at least 28 percent a year, adding producers such as ArcelorMittal
"(EU) quotas for (Turkish) rebar are extremely low and will be exceeded in the first one or two months. Local demand is also extremely poor," said Turkish Steel Exporters' Association (CIB) head Adnan Aslan.
The CIB estimated late last year, before the latest EU move, that Turkey's steel production, consumption and exports would fall 30 percent this year.
Wednesday's beefed up EU safeguards come after the United States early last year placed tariffs of 25 percent on imported steel, while singling out Turkey later in the year with tariffs of 50 percent due to political tensions with Ankara.
The United States had been Turkey's largest steel export destination in 2017, but the country's steel flows to the EU ballooned 80 percent last year, according to Jefferies, making the EU Turkey's the largest steel export destination.
"Traditional export destinations (for Turkish mills) are closing one after the other. Most probably, the (EU) quotas will be filled immediately, so EU producers will have a relatively good year," the International Rebar Producers and Exports Association said in a note.
(Reporting by Maytaal Angel and Ceyda Caglayan; editing by Pratima Desai and David Evans)