Written by Antonio Albaladejo Román.
On 15 September 2023, three EU Member States bordering Ukraine – Poland, Hungary and Slovakia – unilaterally restricted the import of certain Ukrainian agricultural products. This move comes in the wake of the European ‘Commission’s decision not to extend a previous ban on the import (although allowing transit) of Ukrainian grain into these countries.
Why were there restrictions in the first place?
Ukraine is one of the world’s top agricultural producers, especially of grain and vegetable oils. It is also an important food supplier to many countries in Africa and the Middle East.
Russia’s war against Ukraine has deliberately targeted Ukrainian food production and Black Sea exporting facilities, seeking to undermine the country’s economy and threaten global food security.
The EU responded to Moscow’s ‘food weaponisation’ strategy through temporary trade liberalisation with Ukraine, and by setting up the EU-Ukraine Solidarity Lanes in May 2022. These measures have allowed Ukraine to export over 44 million tonnes of blocked agricultural product through EU territory, and had an immediate effect on global food prices, averting a wider crisis.
However, lower prices and competition from Ukrainian producers affected farmers in the EU Member States bordering Ukraine, who called for protectionist measures. Pressure from these groups led to five Member States (Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria) to restrict the import or transit of Ukrainian agricultural products in April 2023, in violation of the EU’s exclusive competence on trade policy.
The European Commission reached a deal with these Member States, agreeing to temporarily restrict import of four Ukrainian products (wheat, corn, rapeseed, and sunflower seeds) into these countries, but allowing their transit to non-EU countries. A coordination platform consisting of the Commission, Ukraine and the affected Member States was also set up. These temporary restrictive measures were extended for three additional months on 5 June 2023.
In addition to the temporary import restrictions, the EU has channelled substantial financial resources to support farmers affected by Ukrainian grain imports. In March 2023, the European Commission mobilised €56.3 million from the agricultural reserve for Bulgarian, Polish and Romanian farmers (€16.75 million for Bulgaria, €29.5 million for Poland and €10.05 million for Romania). Later in May, the Commission put forward an additional €100 million package, extended to Hungary and Slovakia (which provides €9.77 million to Bulgaria, €15.93 million to Hungary, €39.33 million to Poland, €29.73 million to Romania and €5.24 million to Slovakia).
What triggered the latest dispute?
When import restrictions expired on 15 September 2023, the Commission announced that it would not renew the import ban, as the initial market disruption had subsided. Ukraine had also committed to prevent future grain supply surges, and the Russian termination of the Black Sea Grain Initiative in July 2023 increased the importance of the EU Solidarity Lanes for global food security.
Three Member States (Poland, Hungary and Slovakia) opposed the termination of the import ban, and announced the reintroduction of unilateral restrictive measures on several Ukrainian agricultural products.
In response, Ukraine announced its intention to file a lawsuit against these Member States before the World Trade Organization (WTO).
What is the position of the European Parliament?
On 24 March 2022, the European Parliament plenary called for the establishment of safe transport and food corridors to and from Ukraine, as well as support for EU farmers affected by the war in Ukraine. On 12 September 2023, the Parliament debated the impact of Ukrainian grain exports on EU farmers after Russia’s withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Initiative with the European Commission.
Is the EU’s solidarity with Ukraine weakening?
No, the EU remains steadfast in supporting Ukrainians against Russia’s unprovoked war of aggression. Since the Russian illegal invasion of 24 February 2022, the EU, its Member States and financial institutions have mobilised nearly €40 billion to support Ukraine’s State and economy, and a further €20 billion in military assistance. Poland and Slovakia in particular are among the top international supporters of Ukraine. EU citizens too continue to stand strongly alongside Ukraine, with two-thirds in favour of supporting Kyiv’s path toward European integration.
Food Security in 2023
If you wish to learn more about how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and climate change are impacting global food security in 2023, watch this video.