(Nov. 13) Never easy for U.S. exporters, the European Union could get downright impossible.

Unless President Bush removes tariffs on imported steel, the European Union is expected to slap tariffs on a wide variety of U.S. exports, including several fresh produce items.

While the lower value of the dollar relative to the Euro has aided exports to Europe this year, U.S. exporters face high tariffs for many commodities and subsidized domestic competition. That environment could get much tougher.

A Nov. 10 World Trade Organization ruling, affirming a March finding, said U.S. steel tariffs were illegal under the WTO.

In response, European Union officials said they would impose more than $2 billion in sanctions on U.S. imports by mid-December unless the U.S. steel tariffs were dropped.

Among the U.S. imports the EU listed for an 15% additional duty if the steel tariffs aren’t dropped: grapefruit, grapes, apples, cherries, pears, mangoes, walnuts and guavas. Fruit juices also are targeted.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture put the value of U.S. exports of those items (excluding fruit juices) to Europe at $146.6 million in 2002.

That accounts for 7% of the total value of U.S. goods expected to be penalized.

For the listed produce items subject to sanctions, the European Union represented a composite export market share of 10% in 2002.

However, the European market is more important for some items than others. U.S. citrus marketers, primarily in Florida, exported $53 million in grapefruit to Europe in 2002 — valued at about 25% of their total international shipments.

Richard Kinney, executive vice president of the Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Packers Inc., said normal European tariffs are only about 3%, so an extra 15% duty would be devastating.

“We do have the best grapefruit in the world, but we are not low-cost producers and the additional tariffs would hurt us,” he said.

Kinney said he understands the arguments that U.S. steel needs protection in view of subsidized steel production in other countries.

“I understand the argument for steel tariffs, but we don’t want to get hurt in the process,” he said.

However, Kinney said some well-placed sources believe Bush will lift the steel tariffs.

Nancy Foster, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Apple Association, Vienna, Va., said Europe is an important market for growers in the Northeast U.S. and in Washington state.

She said Bush must evaluate the interests of the steel industry at the same time he makes sure that unrelated commodities like apples aren’t subject to retaliation.