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European Union politicians and officials have rounded on the front-line Eastern states of Poland, Hungary and Slovakia for imposing import bans on Ukrainian farm produce, denouncing the curbs as illegal and counterproductive.
The three countries banned imports of Ukrainian grain and other food products over recent days, arguing the export surplus had flooded their markets and threatened the livelihoods of local farmers.
The curbs have set the group on a collision course with Brussels while at the same time threatening the EU’s fragile solidarity in backing Ukraine’s fightback against Russia’s war of aggression.
EU diplomats believe the import bans contravene both international and EU law — and will fail to achieve their goals.
“Unilateral bans of individual countries won’t solve anything,” Czech Minister of Agriculture Zdeněk Nekula said.
“We must find agreement throughout the EU on the rules under which agricultural commodities will transit from Ukraine to European ports, and that production from them goes further to countries outside the EU that are dependent on Ukrainian production.”
The issue risks turning into a ticking time bomb.
Ukraine’s economy heavily relies on grain exports, which before the war were enough to feed 400 million people. When Russia invaded last year and blocked much of Ukraine’s global exports, the EU quickly installed so-called “solidarity lanes,” dropping all inspections on imports.
As a result, grain imports into surrounding countries shot up — much to the anger of local farmers who say they can’t compete. Instead of transiting through the countries to the rest of the world, the grain stays on the local markets, the countries argue.
With the summer harvest season ahead, the situation might get even tenser. Both Poland and Slovakia are heading into national elections later this year where the rural vote will be crucial.
“Solidarity lanes aren’t working. We have no effective tools controlling the transit,” Poland’s Ambassador to the EU Andrzej Sadoś told POLITICO. “We have in our silos some 4 million tons of Ukrainian grain and we need some time to stabilize the situation.”
The problems had been largely ignored by the European Commission so far, he said, forcing the Polish government to act.
“Individual farmers started to block terminals and train connections. They were protesting. We were very close to an escalation,” said Sadoś. He stressed that the ban, due to expire on June 30, is only temporary.
One EU diplomat accused Warsaw of indulging in “gesture politics.”
“The situation has come to a head, it wants to send a signal that it’s supporting its farmers,” this diplomat said. “But it’s really not the most elegant solution, especially with regards to solidarity for Ukraine.”
Others even doubt whether the measures are legal in the first place.
In public, the EU’s executive branch, the Commission, has taken a measured approach, telling journalists in Brussels on Monday that “at this stage, it’s too early” to give a definite answer on the legality of the move. It did, however, note: “Trade policy is of EU exclusive competence and, therefore, unilateral actions are not acceptable.”
The private steer from Brussels appears to be more adamant about illegality. Czech Agriculture Minister Nekula, for example, said the EU’s Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski — who is himself Polish — had told him that such measures “are unacceptable.”
Asked whether the bans were legal, another EU diplomat said: “I don’t think so.” That’s because, the diplomat argued, trade is an exclusive competence of the EU, meaning individual countries cannot simply unilaterally block imports from a country. Yet another EU diplomat supported that argument, pointing to World Trade Organization rules.
The terms of EU-Ukraine commerce are also supposed to be safeguarded by the terms of a free trade area applied since 2014.
Poland rejects the idea that it is breaking the rules, citing national laws that allow it to do so for public safety reasons.
It’s not just Poland, however, and each of the three countries is trying to avoid the Commission’s wrath by making different arguments in its defense.
Slovakia, for its part, argues it was forced to act on Monday after Poland and Hungary moved at the weekend to block imports.
“There was a risk their routes will redirect towards us and will cause even more pressure on our small domestic market,” a Slovak official said, adding that tests had also shown an excessive level of pesticides in wheat.
Contrary to Poland and Hungary, Slovakia said it would keep transit open.
A way out?
Wiesław Gryn, one of the main leaders of farmer protests in Poland, said a better way would be to focus on banning products that are made in violation of EU standards, rather than imposing a temporary blanket ban.
“Stopping Ukrainian exports for two months won’t do much because at least six months are needed to export the 4 million tons [that is already in Poland],” he said.
To address the issue, the EU has disbursed some €30 million to Poland, some €16.8 million to Bulgaria and €10 million to Romania.
That isn’t nearly enough, said Sadoś, the Polish ambassador. “We need systemic solutions, not just support for the farmers,” he said. Poland wanted to keep supporting Ukraine through imports, he said, “but the price cannot be … the bankruptcy of millions of Polish farmers.”
Such systemic solutions, in Sadoś’ view, would be to give importers a window of 24 hours, for example, for shipments to reach a transit port to ensure that the products don’t stay in Poland.
That is legally complicated, however, and would involve more checks and paperwork — potentially holding up trade flows even more, say critics.
Lili Bayer and Gregorio Sorgi contributed reporting.