Why are several eastern EU members banning Ukrainian grain?
Poland, Slovakia and Hungary oppose the EU's lifting of trade restrictions on Ukrainian grain. It's all about domestic politics: Elections are on the horizon in Poland and Slovakia, and Hungary is supporting its allies
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 neighbours in Central and Eastern Europe.
The reason for the dispute is the fact that the EU lifted its temporary trade restrictions on Ukrainian grain and oilseeds last Friday. 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. This ban remained in place until it expired on 15 September.
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 15 October.
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. 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 30 September looms large over the grain dispute.
As in neighbouring Poland, this election is seen as pivotal. 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 that 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."
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.
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 rumours on social media that Ukrainian food is contaminated and poses a threat to people's health.
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 it alone — and not the individual member states — is responsible for trade policy and import bans within the EU, the European Commission has said it wants to analyse the measures taken by Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania.
Commission spokesperson Miriam Garcia Ferrer said that 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.