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Why is Ukrainian grain suddenly so divisive in Europe? | Russo-Ukrainian War News

Unanimity is a concept that is often tested across the EU.

Disagreements over issues such as military aid and Ukraine’s EU candidacy challenged the overall united front following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February.

The EU’s treatment of one of Russia’s closest allies, China, was also under fire last week after French President Emmanuel Macron said Europe should not be a “follower” of Washington or Beijing on Taiwan. question.

And now, Ukrainian grain is in danger of splitting the union.

Poland and Hungary announced temporary import bans on Saturday to protect their own farmers amid a recent surge in cheap grain and agricultural products from Ukraine. Slovakia joined on Monday and Bulgaria on Wednesday.

Romania is another country that has witnessed farmers protesting over the issue, but so far no ban has been enacted.

While Ukraine acknowledges the concerns of European farmers, Kiev authorities say the situation is more difficult for Ukrainians.

But there are signs that the crisis is easing.

Senior EU officials condemned the measures but pledged to fix the problem with money – proposing millions of extra euros to support the continent’s farmers.

There is still oneTransshipment of Ukrainian grain and food products through Poland will resume, Ukrainian Agriculture Minister Mikola Solsky confirmed on Wednesday after talks with his Polish counterpart in Warsaw.

Ukraine also plans to hold talks later this week with other EU countries imposing the ban.

Rescuers work at the construction site of a residential building damaged by Russian military strikes in Sloviansk, Donetsk region, Ukraine, April 14, 2023. Press service of the Donetsk Regional Civil and Military Administration/Handout via Reuters Attention Editors - This image was provided by a third party. mandatory credit. Do not cover the sign. Resale prohibited. Not archived.
Rescuers work at the site of a residential building damaged by Russian military strikes in Slovyansk, Donetsk region, Ukraine [Press service of the Donetsk Regional Military-Civil Administration/Handout via Reuters]

After the start of the Russian war, Moscow blocked shipping routes from Black Sea ports, preventing Ukrainian ships from transporting grain and other agricultural products to the rest of the world.

The blockade ended last August when Russia and Ukraine signed an agreement to resume exports.

But Ukraine’s Solsky expressed concern about the status of the deal with Moscow – which is currently due to expire on May 18.

“It is impossible to predict how many ships Moscow will allow to pass,” he said.

Meanwhile, Russia has accused Ukraine of obstructing Turkey’s ship inspection process.

According to the EU, as of March 2023, more than 23 million tons of grain and other food products have been exported through the Black Sea Food Initiative.

To ensure there are no more barriers to global exports, the EU agreed last year to remove all tariffs on Ukrainian grain and introduce a “solidarity lane” for grain transit.

Interactive - First shipment of grain leaves Ukraine
(Al Jazeera)

The move by the EU, more than a year after the war broke out, is beginning to anger farmers in eastern and central Europe.

“Ukrainian grains should reach countries that desperately need them. But at the same time, it makes it difficult for countries like Romania, a net exporter of grains, where more than half of our domestic production is exported,” said Romanian professional farmer and processor Business Forum executive director Alina Cretu told Al Jazeera.

“If some local traders buy these grains from Ukraine instead of local farmers, which is what is happening now, our farmers will face bankruptcy because we cannot compete with the prices of Ukrainian grains,” she said.

“We feel that the EU is not clear about the situation of farmers like us. Banning the import of Ukrainian grains to our market within the stipulated period and ensuring a strict transition through Romania will help our farmers to navigate through this complex situation period,” said Cretu, who lives with her husband on a farm in southeastern Romania where they grow wheat, barley, corn and sunflowers.

Farmers’ unions in Poland and other Central and Eastern European countries have expressed similar sentiments.

How are EU officials handling the crisis?

The European Commission rejected the import ban, saying in a statement that “the EU’s trade policy is exclusive and therefore unilateral action is unacceptable”.

Mats Cuvelier, a Brussels-based lawyer specializing in the EU and international trade, told Al Jazeera that if EU member states determine that agricultural products do not meet specific issues – such as EU health standards – this does not stop them from blocking agricultural products from entering the bloc. standard.

“Slovakia, for example, appears to have justified its ban on Ukrainian grain imports on the grounds that it detected pesticides not allowed in the EU,” he said.

Slovak Agriculture Minister Samuel Vlcan said the ban was a measure to protect Slovakia’s agricultural sector and mainly protect the health of consumers, but added that Ukrainian grain and other products could continue to transit through Slovakia.

EU officials will discuss the ban this week.

Cuvelier added that while the European Commission could bring infringement proceedings against EU member states that do not comply with EU trade law, he expected the commission to opt for less confrontational solutions, such as additional support for affected farmers.

In March, EU Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski allocated 29.5 million euros ($32 million) to Poland, 16.75 million euros ($18 million) to Bulgaria and 10.05 million euros ($11 million) to Romania, seeking support for farmers.

On Wednesday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen suggested that an additional 100 million euro ($110 million) support fund for farmers might help.

But Jacob Fink Kirkegaard, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based German Marshall Fund in Brussels, told Al Jazeera that money will not solve the fundamental problem because, for countries such as Poland and Hungary, the EU has to deal with its ongoing problems first. political dispute.

“Furthermore, some EU countries may also secretly be happy about cheap Ukrainian grain amid rising food prices. So negotiations on these import bans, which are illegal under EU law, will be difficult,” he said.

The EU has been withholding 138 billion euros ($151 billion) worth of funds from Poland and Hungary in an effort to get those countries to respect the rule of law.

“In addition to these budgetary strains with the EU, the Polish government is under electoral pressure and they need the support of rural voter groups, otherwise the government will lose the election,” Kokegaard said.

“In the case of Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban is also more opportunistic, often creating pressure within the bloc when a unanimous decision has to be made. For Slovakia, it’s also election season, so the politics are the same. But if Poland lifts the ban, other EU countries will follow,” he added.

Romanian farmers protest against grain prices and the impact of an influx of cheap Ukrainian grain into Bucharest, Romania, outside the European Commission offices, April 7, 2023.  Inquam Photos/George Calin via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - This image was provided by a third party. Romania is out.Commercial or editorial sales are prohibited in Romania
Romanian farmers protest outside European Commission offices over grain prices and demand impact of influx of cheap Ukrainian grain into Bucharest, Romania [Inquam Photos/George Calin via Reuters]

Romanian farmer Cretu acknowledged the food deal was important for Ukraine, but in the longer term he would like to see further EU involvement to support agricultural workers within the bloc.

“We need more financial support and investment to improve logistics facilities, such as transportation, infrastructure, port modernization and increase storage capacity,” she said.

Kirkgaard also said the EU should narrow down and look at the big picture.

“While the EU as a whole supports Ukraine, domestic concerns are tempering that sentiment and will continue. So while discussions on resolving each member state’s issues are tricky, they are important for achieving EU consensus, “He said.

“Otherwise, Russia benefits from these differences and can use them to its advantage.”

Priyanka Shankar contributed to this report.

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