Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the eastern member nations of the European Union have been the union’s most constant supporters of Ukraine, except for Hungary. This has been the case since the eastern member states joined the EU.
However, cracks are developing in this wall of solidarity, and there is even tremendous illwill between Ukraine and several of its neighbours in Central and Eastern Europe. This wall of solidarity is beginning to show signs of weakness.
The EU’s decision to relax its temporary trade restrictions on Ukrainian grain and oilseeds, which had been in place till September 15, is the source of the dispute. The European Commission imposed a moratorium on wheat, maise, rapeseed and sunflower imports from Ukraine to Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia at the beginning of May due to an agreement with these countries on Ukrainian agri-food products. The restrictions were initially in effect until June 5 and extended until mid-September.
Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary are against changes and support maintaining the current import limitations even though doing so would violate EU law. As a means of responding, Ukraine has complained to the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
Ukraine is consistently ranked among the world’s top grain and oilseeds producers. Up until quite recently, the majority of its shipments were directed towards markets that were located outside of the EU.
However, due to Russia’s blockade of the ports on the Black Sea, Ukraine is currently cut off from its conventional export channels. As a result, the country is compelled to rely on alternative routes, such as the overland transit routes that pass through Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania.
Problems have periodically surfaced, most notably in Poland, where part of the grain, rather than passing through the country on its way to other markets, ended up on the Polish market, where it either drove prices down or filled up available storage space, both of which had unintended consequences.
Midway through April, Poland and Hungary imposed import restrictions on Ukraine’s grain. As a result, the European Union was forced to implement a temporary import ban across the board for the entire union. Several farmers’ demonstrations had preceded these actions.
For the Law and Justice (PiS) party, now in power in Poland, this is about retaining its grip on power. On October 15, Poles will vote for a new parliament in an election that many observers consider crucial. Farmers were instrumental in the party’s success in both of the previous elections that the PiS won in 2015 and 2019.
However, Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s party was given a rude awakening in the spring of last year when incensed farmers all over the country took to the streets to protest the government’s agricultural policy and to oppose the passage of Ukrainian grain into Polish territory. As a response, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki dismissed his minister of agriculture and successfully lobbied the European Commission to impose an embargo, which was lifted on the previous Friday.
Because Poland was so close to holding elections, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki had no intention of taking any chances that could hurt his party’s chances in the election. As a result, Poland moved quickly to enforce its unilateral import embargo.
However, there is still a chance for a settlement to be reached because the Polish embargo only applies to imports and does not affect the transportation of Ukrainian grain.
The approaching parliamentary election in Slovakia, which will take place on September 30, is also a significant factor in the grain debate. This election is widely considered to be crucial.
Former Prime Minister Robert Fico could return to Slovakia after a pro-Western and pro-reform coalition government has ruled the country for three and a half turbulent years. Although he claims to be a social democrat, Robert Fico is a right-wing nationalist who maintains strong ties to Viktor Orban, Hungary’s Prime Minister. He has often made anti-Ukrainian and pro-Russian statements and threatened to end Slovakia’s military backing for Ukraine.
This likely played a role in the decision of the caretaker government to continue imposing import restrictions on Ukrainian grain. Even though the pro-Western interim government led by Ludovit Odour has little real power, it wants to ensure that it does not push additional voters into the arms of Fico by allowing the free import of grain from Ukraine.
On September 21, the Agriculture Ministers of Slovakia and Ukraine agreed to establish a licensing system for trading in grain products. This should allow Bratislava to relax the ban on grain imports from Ukraine.
Before the EU decided to lift import restrictions on Ukrainian grain, Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, predicted a “serious fight” between the eastern EU member states and Brussels.
He accused the EU of representing American interests rather than European ones, stating that Ukrainian grain is a commercial product originating from a territory that has potentially been in US hands for decades.
While Orban’s statements are directed primarily at his domestic supporters, Hungary’s decision to maintain the import prohibition on Ukrainian grain is also an effort to woo his former allies into an anti-Brussels alliance.
With his pro-Putin, anti-Ukraine stance, Orban has fallen out of favour not only with the Czech Republic and Slovakia but also with Poland over the past eighteen months. As a result, Hungary’s foreign policy is largely isolated in the region.
Romania is neutral in the dispute regarding Ukrainian cereal imports. It wishes to extend the moratorium on grain imports from Ukraine, initially only for 30 days.
The Romanian Prime Minister Marcel Ciolacu announced on September 18 that his nation had set a deadline for Ukraine to present a plan to protect Romanian farmers from uncontrolled grain exports. In addition to the Ukrainian action plan, the Romanian government wishes to determine appropriate measures to safeguard its producers.
Romanian parliamentary and presidential elections are not scheduled until late 2024, making the issue of Ukrainian grain less urgent than in Poland and Slovakia.
However, the extreme right-wing nationalist Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR) party is gaining ground. AUR has a pro-Russian position, and one of its policies is the unification of all Romanians in one state, including those in the northern Ukraine-administered Bukovina region.
The Ukrainian grain issue could cause significant internal divisions in Bulgaria.
Last week, Bulgaria was the only eastern EU member to remove import restrictions on Ukrainian grain. Nationwide, Bulgarian farmers are currently protesting the pro-Western government’s decision. The protests are being fuelled by a pro-Russian disinformation campaign and social media rumours that Ukrainian food is contaminated and a threat to public health.
Bulgaria has just conducted its fifth parliamentary election in 24 months and has a stable ruling majority for the first time in several years. It remains to be seen whether the demonstrations will threaten this stability.
The European Commission in Brussels has decided to observe and observe. Although the European Commission is solely responsible for trade policy and import bans within the EU and not individual member states, it has stated that it wishes to analyse the measures implemented by Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania.
The EU Commission, according to Commission spokesperson Miriam Garcia Ferrer, sees no need for import prohibitions because there is no longer any market distortion. In one month, the Commission plans to assess the situation. The government may then pursue legal action against Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and possibly Romania.
If so, such action would occur after the upcoming elections in Poland and Slovakia, for which the EU Commission does not wish to provide additional campaign ammo.
On September 21, Zelenskyi, Duda, and Lithuanian President Nauseda convened in New York to discuss grain. A further escalation of the crisis would be irresponsible, according to the president of Lithuania, who believes that Poland’s support for Ukraine is exceptional and that a solution must be found in order to avoid negligent escalation.