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Ukrainian grain: Why are eastern EU members banning imports?

September 20, 2023

Poland, Slovakia and Hungary oppose the EU's lifting of trade restrictions on Ukrainian grain. It's all about domestic politics.

A combine harvester at work in a field, Odessa region, southern Ukraine
Ukraine, one of the world's largest producers of grain and oilseeds, has been struggling to get its agricultural produce to market since Russia blockaded its Black Sea portsImage: Ukrinform/dpa/picture alliance

The eastern member states of the European Union — with the exception of Hungary — have until now been the union's most consistent supporters of Ukraine since it was invaded by Russia in February 2022.

Now, however, not only are cracks appearing in this wall of solidarity, there is even considerable ill-feeling between Ukraine and several of its neighbors in Central and Eastern Europe.

The reason for the dispute is the fact the EU lifted its temporary trade restrictions on Ukrainian grain and oilseeds last Friday.

Agricultural worker Artem Nechai operates a combine harvester during a rapeseed harvest in a field near the village Kyshchentsi, Cherkasy region, Ukraine, July 18, 2023
Ukraine's promise to control the export of wheat, maize, rapeseed and sunflower seed to avoid disrupting markets has failed to pacify several of its EU neighbors Image: VALENTYN OGIRENKO/REUTERS

Poland, Slovakia and Hungary are opposed to the move and want to keep import restrictions in place although this would mean violating EU law. Ukraine has responded by filing a complaint with the World Trade Organization.

Overland routes vital for Ukraine

Ukraine is one of the world's largest producers of grain and oilseeds. Until recently, most of its exports were shipped to regions outside the EU.

However, Russia's blockade of the Black Sea ports means that Ukraine is now cut off from its traditional export routes and is forced to rely on other paths such as the overland transit routes through Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania.

Problems have repeatedly arisen, above all in Poland, where instead of transiting through the country to other markets, some of the grain landed on the Polish market — pushing down prices or taking up storage capacity.

After several farmers' protests, both Poland and Hungary imposed import restrictions on Ukrainian grain in mid-April and forced the EU to impose a temporary import ban for the entire union.

Scores of waiting trucks line a country road leading to a river port in southwestern Ukraine
Ukraine now relies heavily on overland transit routes through Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and RomaniaImage: DW

This ban remained in place until it expired on September 15. The EU sees its decision not to renew the ban as a gesture of solidarity with Ukraine. In the eastern member states of the EU, however, the issue has long assumed a very different importance: It is now a matter of domestic policy and the subject of a power struggle with Brussels.

Poland: Ruling party seeks to stay in power

For Poland's ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, this is about maintaining its grip on power.

In an election many observers consider pivotal, Poles will elect a new parliament on October 15. Farmers played an important role in PiS's two previous election victories, in 2015 and 2019.

But Jaroslaw Kaczynski's party got a rude awakening last spring when furious farmers across the country took to the streets to protest the government's agricultural policy and oppose the transit of Ukrainian grain across Polish territory. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki responded by sacking his agriculture minister and persuading the European Commission to impose the embargo that expired last Friday.

Tractors block a bridge in Stettin, Poland, April 3, 2023
Angered by a glut of cheap Ukrainian grain on the Polish market, Polish farmers took their protest to the streets, blocking roads and bridgesImage: Marcin Bielecki/PAP/picture alliance

With the election just around the corner, Morawiecki has no intention of risking further protests that could damage his party's election prospects, which is why Poland swiftly implemented its unilateral import ban.

The government is toeing the line drawn by party leader Kaczynski last week when he said: "We are ready to support Ukraine during the war and during its reconstruction and we want to take part in the reconstruction but at the same time, we must remember our citizens, our agriculture and our countryside. Our Ukrainian friends should understand that."

Nevertheless, there is still hope for a compromise: The Polish embargo relates to imports, but not the transit of Ukrainian grain.

Slovakia: Right-wing nationalists waiting in the wings

In Slovakia, too, the upcoming parliamentary election on September 30 looms large over the grain dispute. As in neighboring Poland, this election is seen as pivotal.

A headshot of Robert Fico during a press conference at the Chancellery of the Prime Minister in Warsaw
Pro-Russian, anti-Ukrainian Robert Fico could become Slovakia's next prime ministerImage: Mateusz Wlodarczyk/NurPhoto/picture alliance

After three-and-a-half chaotic years of a pro-Western, pro-reform coalition government, Slovakia could see the return of former PM Robert Fico. Nominally a social democrat, Fico is in practice a right-wing nationalist with close links to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. He has made repeated anti-Ukrainian, pro-Russian statements and has promised to halt Slovakia's military support for Ukraine.

It is likely this played a role in the caretaker government's decision to maintain its import restrictions on Ukrainian grain. Although Ludovit Odor's pro-Western interim government has few real powers, it obviously wants to avoid driving more voters into Fico's arms by permitting the unrestricted import of Ukrainian grain.

Hungary: Keen to break out of isolation

Hungary's PM Viktor Orban had predicted a "serious fight" between the EU's eastern member states and Brussels before the EU had even decided to lift the import restrictions on Ukrainian grain.

He accused the EU of representing American and not European interests, saying that Ukrainian grain is actually "a commercial product originating from a territory, which, possibly, has long been in the US's hands."

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban delivers the keynote speech at the opening session of the Hungary Conservative Political Action Conference, Budapest, Hungary
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has introduced a unilateral ban on the import of Ukrainian grainImage: Szilard Koszticsak/ASSOCIATED PRESS/picture alliance

While Orban is targeting first and foremost his domestic supporters with such crude statements, it is likely that Hungary's decision to maintain the import ban on Ukrainian grain is also an attempt to win over his former partners for an anti-Brussels alliance.

With his pro-Putin, anti-Ukraine stance, Orban has fallen out not only with the Czech Republic and Slovakia, but also with Poland over the past 18 months and is largely isolated in the region in terms of its foreign policy.

Romania: Neither for nor against

Unlike the three above-mentioned countries, Romania is sitting on the fence in the dispute about Ukrainian grain imports: It wants to extend the import ban on Ukrainian grain, but initially only for 30 days.

Romanian Prime Minister Marcel Ciolacu said on Monday that his country had set Ukraine a deadline to present a plan that will protect Romanian farmers against uncontrolled grain exports from Ukraine. In addition to the Ukrainian action plan, the Romanian government wants to decide on suitable measures to protect its farmers.

Grain is loaded onto a ship in the Romanian port of Constanta
Since Russia's blockade of Ukraine's Black Sea ports, Romania's Constanta port has become a hub for the export of Ukrainian grainImage: Jack Parrock/DW

Parliamentary and presidential elections are scheduled for late 2024 in Romania, which means that the issue of Ukrainian grain is not currently as pressing as it is 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 stance, and one of its policies is the unification of all Romanians in one state, including those in the northern Bukovina region, which is part of Ukraine.

Bulgaria: Major domestic rift possible

In Bulgaria, the question of Ukrainian grain has the potential to cause major domestic divisions.

Bulgaria was the only eastern member state of the EU to lift import restrictions on Ukrainian grain last week. Bulgarian farmers are now protesting the pro-Western government's decision across the country.

The protests are being fueled by a pro-Russian disinformation campaign and rumors on social media that Ukrainian food is contaminated and poses a threat to people's health.

Bulgarian grain producers with heavy machinery gather on a road, Dragoman Town, Sofia, Bulgaria
Bulgarian farmers were angered by their government's decision not to impose a ban on the import of Ukrainian grain after the EU embargo expired last FridayImage: Borislav Troshev/AA/picture alliance

Bulgaria has just held its fifth parliamentary election in 24 months and currently has a stable ruling majority for the first time in several years. It remains to be seen whether the protests will pose a threat to this stability.

European Commission: Content to wait

For its part, the European Commission in Brussels has decided to watch and wait.

Although alone — and not the individual member states — it is responsible for trade policy and import bans within the EU, the European Commission has said it wants to analyze the measures taken by Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania.

Commission spokesperson Miriam Garcia Ferrer said the EU Commission sees no necessity for import bans because there is no longer any distortion of the markets. The Commission intends to review the situation in a month's time. After that, it may take legal action against Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and possibly Romania, too.

If it does, such action would come after the elections in Poland and Slovakia, for which the EU Commission does not want to provide any additional election ammunition.

This article was originally published in German.

Ukraine – Rerouting grain exports

A gray-haired man (Jacek Lepiarz) stands in front of bookcases full of books
Jacek Lepiarz Journalist for DW's Polish Service who specializes in German-Polish subjects
Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union
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Keno Verseck Editor, writer and reporter