Op-Ed | The grain dispute is the first sign that Ukraine's EU accession will not be easy. What obstacles await on this path?

The Ukrainian grain situation is making waves in Europe. Deputy Director and Head of the Brussels Office Ziga Faktor wrote an Op-Ed about the impact of the situation on the country's EU accession and how some member states are reacting.

At least until next summer, Ukrainian grain will continue to flow duty-free to the European market. The agreement reached by the EU with its Member States has thus lifted a ban that lasted several weeks. However, despite the averted crisis, the fragility of Ukraine's vision of future accession to the Union and the challenges that await it along the way have become fully apparent.

When the leader of Poland's ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, Jarosław Kaczyński, announced without consulting his European partners that his country was stopping food imports from Ukraine, he caused a stir not only in his eastern neighbour but also in Brussels. Such a move was certainly not expected from Ukraine's closest ally. Certainly not at a time when Zelensky's treasury is so dependent on grain exports.

Look for elections in everything

Kaczyński's decision had its reasons. It was in response to criticism from Polish farmers who could not compete with Ukrainian grain prices. The Polish government had long ignored the voices calling for measures to protect domestic producers and straighten out these market differences. Under pressure, it finally decided to resort to the extreme solution of a total ban on the import of grain and other foodstuffs of Ukrainian origin.

This was shortly followed by other Central and Eastern European countries - Hungary, Slovakia and Bulgaria. Romania did not join the blockade but called on Brussels to do more to support European farmers. 

The ban contrasted sharply with the strong support for Ukraine in the region and was even in direct contradiction to the agreement negotiated by European leaders last year to abolish tariffs on imports from the country. Not to mention that cheaper Ukrainian grain could also have had a positive effect on food prices in the shops.

Why did the four states still resort to such a drastic step? It is not so surprising in the case of Hungary, which is the only EU state that has long opposed stronger support for Ukraine. For the other countries, however, it was unexpected. In the case of Poland, in particular, the tense pre-election atmosphere and the struggle for the votes of farmers, mainly PiS voters, who were existentially affected by grain imports, were on full display.

Slovakia is also preparing for an electoral battle, while the Bulgarians have just gone through their fifth (and, it seems, yet another stalemate) election in the last two years. And in such cases, politicians are willing to trade long-term strategies and the consolidation of foreign relations for success on the domestic scene.

Brussels extinguishes the crisis

The importance of Ukrainian grain on world markets has been evident since the start of the Russian war through rising prices. Due to complications in the sea transport of grain from Ukrainian ports, much of the grain entered Central and Eastern Europe duty-free, despite an agreement with Moscow. Although Brussels had already committed to compensating farmers in these countries in March, it left the main responsibility to the Member States, which were unable to cope with the situation.

Just to give you an idea, according to the Rzeczpospolita daily, approximately three million tonnes of grain have entered Poland in the last year. This corresponds to approximately ten per cent of Poland's annual production. This was certainly not a staggering oversupply of the market but rather a poorly chosen or even non-existent government strategy.

The decision to ban it outraged not only some member states but also leading EU officials. They criticised in particular, the violation of the previously negotiated trade agreement and called for more solidarity with Ukraine, which the EU declared.

After several weeks of wrangling, the EU, led by Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis, finally managed to negotiate an agreement that reopens the borders to Ukrainian grain. In return for this concession, there is to be increased financial compensation for farmers and a clear effort to ensure that surplus Ukrainian grain continues to be moved from Europe to more needy world markets, particularly those in Africa. Together with the extension of the trade agreement for another year, negotiated by European ambassadors on the same day, the EU has thus managed to address the most pressing short-term challenges associated with food imports from Ukraine.

Unity within the Union will be crucial, especially in the coming months, if Russia decides not to extend the agreement on grain exports across the Black Sea. This was brokered between Kiev and Moscow last year by the UN together with Turkey. The EU should already be preparing for a situation in which food imports from Ukraine will increase severalfold. It should therefore initiate intensive talks with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe on how to work together to prevent negative effects on European citizens and the agricultural industry.

The current negotiations between Dombrovskis and the member states should form the basis for the following solution. In the medium term, it is the EU that will be primarily responsible for promoting Ukrainian exports of goods, and it is absolutely essential that the Union is united and has strategies in place in advance.

A crucial but painful step

Ukraine's long-term ambition to be part of the EU community is a separate chapter. It brings with it several challenges, and the current grain crisis has given us a glimpse of how difficult it will be to integrate the country. Ukraine was already granted candidate status last summer and therefore expects to start real negotiations on its membership in the near future. Although the EU's support for Ukraine remains unwavering so far, many member states are increasingly sceptical about the prospect of its joining the Union.

Apart from the difficult reforms in the area of the rule of law and the fight against corruption, which are a precondition for the country's accession to the EU, economic issues will play the most important role in this respect. This is not only in terms of integration into the EU market but also because the largest financial packages distributed among the Member States are the budgets for the single agricultural and cohesion policies.

The key to the distribution of this money is based on how economically (under)developed a country is. In both of these areas, the Central and Eastern European countries that have benefited most from these budgets so far would have to give up some of their pie to Ukraine.

In the years to come, possible internal political tensions in these countries can be expected to spark heated debates over how much Ukraine's eventual membership will cost their own coffers. And at these moments, it will be up to all CEE states to demonstrate that they genuinely support Ukraine's EU membership. And that they are politically mature and responsible enough to avoid further unexpected steps that would undermine relations with Ukraine.

For the European Union, the issue of support for Ukraine is absolutely crucial. If progress on future membership stagnates because of divisions between member countries, we risk destabilising the regime of Volodymyr Zelensky, which has staked all its cards on integration into the EU and NATO. This would be the first step towards the collapse of Ukraine, weakened by the war, and the strengthening not only of Russia itself but also of anti-European sentiments in our neighbourhood.

We have already witnessed several disagreements between Member States on enlargement, often caused by nationalist tendencies. If they are repeated, the EU risks losing all credibility with the candidate countries.

It is time for longer-term objectives to finally take precedence over the pettiness of domestic politics. In particular, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, which have finally gained respect on European soil in recent years, should confirm that they are responsible political actors. And that a few tonnes of grain will not sway their values next time.

#Ukraine #Czechia

Žiga Faktor
Deputy Director & Head of Brussels Office

Expertise: European integration of Western Balkans, EU enlargement, Slovenian Politics and EU-Turkey relations

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