Why is Ukrainian grain suddenly so divisive in Europe?
Top European Union officials are racing to appease a handful of countries that have temporarily banned imports.
Unanimity is a concept often put to the test across the European Union.
After Russia invaded Ukraine in February last year, divisions over issues such as military aid and Ukraine’s EU candidacy have challenged an overall united front.
Last week, the EU’s approach towards dealing with one of Russia’s closest allies – China – was also thrown into question after French President Emmanuel Macron’s remarks that Europe should not be “followers” of Washington or Beijing regarding Taiwan.
And now, Ukrainian grain threatens to divide the union.
Amid a recent surge in cheap grains and farm products from Ukraine, Poland and Hungary announced temporary bans on imports on Saturday, to protect their own farmers’ interests. Slovakia joined them on Monday, and Bulgaria on Wednesday.
Romania, another country that has witnessed farmer protests over the issue, has so far stopped short of a ban.
While Ukraine has acknowledged the concerns of European farmers, authorities in Kyiv say Ukrainians have it harder.
But there are some signs of the crisis easing.
Top officials at the EU have condemned the measures but promised to solve the problem with money – proposing millions of extra euros to support farmers in the continent.
And after talks with his Polish counterparts in Warsaw, Ukrainian Agriculture Minister Mykola Solskyi confirmed on Wednesday that the transit of Ukrainian grain and food products will resume through Poland.
Ukraine is also scheduled to hold talks with the other EU nations that have imposed bans later this week.
After Russia’s war began, Moscow blocked shipping routes from Black Sea ports, stalling Ukrainian vessels from transporting grain and other agricultural products to the rest of the world.
The blockade ended in August last year, with a deal signed by Russia and Ukraine that exports resume.
But Ukraine’s Solskyi has raised concerns about the status of this agreement with Moscow – which is currently due to expire on May 18.
He said it was “impossible to predict how many vessels Moscow would allow through”.
Meanwhile, Russia has accused Ukraine of hindering ship inspection processes in Turkey.
According to the EU, as of March 2023, more than 23 million tonnes of grain and other foodstuffs have been exported via the Black Sea Grain Initiative.
To ensure there are no further obstacles in global exports, the EU unanimously agreed to lift all duties on Ukrainian grains and introduced “solidarity lanes” for the transit of the grains last year.
More than a year into the war, this move by the bloc has begun angering farmers across Eastern and Central Europe.
“Ukrainian cereals should arrive in countries which need them urgently. But at the same time, this makes it hard for countries like Romania, which is a net exporter for cereals with more than half of our internal production being exported,” Alina Cretu, executive director at the Romanian Forum of Professional Farmers and Processors, told Al Jazeera.
“If some local traders buy these cereals from Ukraine, instead of buying from local farmers, which is already happening now, our farmers will face bankruptcy because we can’t compete with the price of Ukrainian cereals,” she said.
“We feel that the EU is not clear how the situation is for farmers like us. Banning imports of Ukrainian grain into our markets for a determined period and ensuring strict transition of it through Romania will help our farmers meander through this complex period,” said Cretu, who lives on a farm with her husband in southeastern Romania, where they cultivate wheat, barley, maize and sunflowers.
Similar sentiments have been expressed by farmer’s unions in Poland and other central and Eastern European countries.
How are EU officials handling the crisis?
The European Commission has rejected the import bans and said in a statement that the “EU’s trade policy is of exclusive competence and, therefore, unilateral actions are not acceptable”.
Mats Cuvelier, a Brussels-based lawyer focusing on EU and international trade, told Al Jazeera that this does not prevent EU member states from stopping agricultural products from entering the EU if they determine that the products do not meet specific issues – like the EU’s sanitary standards.
“Slovakia, for instance, appears to have justified its ban on the import of Ukrainian grain on the grounds that it detected pesticides not permitted in the EU,” he said.
Slovakia’s Agriculture Minister Samuel Vlcan said the ban is a measure for the protection of the Slovak agro-food sector and mainly the health of consumers, but added that the transit of Ukrainian grains and other products through Slovakia could continue.
EU officials will discuss the bans this week.
Cuvelier added that while the European Commission could start infringement proceedings against an EU member state if it does not comply with the bloc’s trade laws, he expects the Commission to opt for a less confrontational solution like offering additional support to affected farmers.
In March, European Commissioner for Agriculture Janusz Wojciechowski allocated 29.5 million euros ($32m) to Poland, 16.75 million euros ($18m) to Bulgaria and 10.05 million euros ($11m) to Romania, seeking to support farmers.
On Wednesday, Ursula von der Leyen, the Commission’s leader, suggested an extra 100 million-euro ($110m) support fund for farmers may help.
But Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Brussels, told Al Jazeera that money will not solve underlying issues because for countries like Poland and Hungary, the bloc has to first deal with its ongoing political beef.
“Moreover amid food inflation, some EU countries might also be secretly happy with cheap Ukrainian grains. So negotiations on these import bans, which are illegal under EU law, are going to be difficult,” he said.
The EU has been withholding funds worth 138 billion euros ($151bn) from Poland and Hungary in an effort to make the countries respect the rule of law.
“Besides these budgetary tensions with the EU, the Polish government is also under pressure heading into elections and they need the support from rural voter groups, otherwise the government will lose the elections,” Kirkegaard said.
“In the case of Hungary, it is also more opportunistic from Prime Minister Viktor Orban who often creates pressure within the bloc when unanimous decisions have to be made. For Slovakia, it is also election season, so the politics is the same. But if Poland drops the ban, the other EU nations will follow suit as well,” he added.
Cretu, the Romanian farmer, acknowledged that the grain deal is important for Ukraine, but in the long term wants to see the EU chip in further and support agricultural workers within the bloc.
“We need more financial support and investments in improving logistic facilities, like transportation, infrastructure, port modernisation and increasing stockage capacities,” she said.
Kirkegaard also said the EU should zoom out and focus on the bigger picture.
“While there is support for Ukraine throughout the bloc, it is being tempered by domestic concerns, which will continue. So while discussions to address each member state’s issues are tricky, they are important to achieve EU unanimity,” he said.
“If not, Russia will benefit from these divisions and could use it to its benefit.”
Priyanka Shankar contributed to this report.