When Ukraine’s trade representative, Taras Kachka, revealed to POLITICO that Kyiv was going to sue EU governments in a grain dispute, it proved too much for one of the diplomats to accept of the block.
“Was this man drunk?” » asked the exasperated envoy, all diplomatic thoughts evaporating in the heat of his frustration.
Ukraine kept Kachka’s promise on Monday, formally filing cases against Poland, Hungary and Slovakia at the World Trade Organization after the three trios decided to defy Brussels and ban imports of Ukrainian cereals.
The dispute has shattered European unity, leaving other EU diplomats privately furious with Poland, particularly for going rogue. And this confrontation is putting a strain on relations between kyiv and Brussels at a sensitive moment in the war that Ukraine has been waging for 18 months against the Russian invaders.
The worst ? This is just a taste of the battles to come.
For his part, Kachka barely flinched in the face of the “drunken” jibe. EU diplomats, he told POLITICO, were apparently “not ready to hear that kind of clear language” from Kiev.
Tensions flared on Friday evening, after the European Commission decided to allow sales of Ukrainian grain across the EU. This ended restrictions on grain imports that five eastern EU member countries had initially requested and received, in the spring, to protect their own domestic farmers from competition.
Within hours, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia announced their own unilateral bans on Ukrainian grain – flouting the European Commission, violating EU single market rules and angering other EU governments.
The three countries were guilty of “part-time solidarity” with Ukraine, lamented German Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir. “When it suits you, you are united and when it does not suit you, you are not,” Özdemir said Monday as he arrived for a meeting of European agriculture ministers.
A European diplomat said the unilateral move proved that winning votes mattered more than economic concerns in Poland, which is in the midst of a high-stakes campaign ahead of elections next month. “It is no longer about economic concerns, but about national political objectives,” the diplomat said. “We already knew that, but now it’s public and clear for everyone.”
This conflict lays bare one of the conflicts at the heart of the Western alliance that supports Ukraine. How much longer can the EU (and Ukraine’s other allies) maintain their support for Kiev in the face of political pressure to boost their domestic economies and – as in Poland – win votes?
The question will only become more acute as agricultural powerhouse Ukraine seeks to become a full member of the EU.
On Tuesday, European affairs ministers from the bloc’s 27 capitals will discuss over lunch the potential future enlargement of the bloc to admit Ukraine and the Western Balkan countries.
EU leaders have loudly expressed the need to open the EU door to Ukraine after the start of Russia’s large-scale invasion.
But increasingly, the bloc is beginning to realize that to accommodate a war-devastated country of more than 40 million people, the EU itself will have to change.
Admitting the former Soviet Union’s breadbasket to the EU’s single market would make Ukraine the biggest beneficiary of EU agricultural subsidies, forcing an overhaul of the common agricultural policy. Then come more important issues, including those related to reconstruction costs, regional aid and the need to reform the EU’s internal processes.
In all these debates, current EU member states risk losing power and money to Ukraine.
“Grains are our first test,” said a European official who, like the diplomats cited in this article, was granted anonymity so he could speak candidly about sensitive issues.
The maneuvers of Poland’s right-wing government, which is fighting to be re-elected next month, have worried other EU member countries for weeks.
Along with the Baltics, Warsaw has led the charge for tougher European economic sanctions against Russia and for more weapons and money for Ukraine. But faced with the consequences of supporting Ukraine for its own farmers, it is astonishing how quickly Poland is “throwing Ukrainians under the bus,” said the EU official cited above.
“This decision by Poland, Hungary and Slovakia undermines EU unity vis-à-vis Ukraine,” another European diplomat said, adding that “the Commission should probably pursue these states members in court. This is a violation of internal market rules.”
The European Commission, however, finds itself in a delicate position. As part of its mandate to defend the EU’s single market, the executive can launch infringement proceedings – which would also send a signal of support to Kyiv.
A European Commission spokesperson said Monday that the executive was still analyzing the bans imposed by the three countries.
But Commission head Ursula von der Leyen must also weigh the impact of such a decision on Poland’s October 15 general election, where the ruling Law and Justice party will need to retain the rural vote to win a third term. unprecedented.
Proclaiming the import ban over the weekend, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said: “We stood our ground. We defend the Polish farmer. We defend the Polish countryside.
Von der Leyen has also come under pressure from members of his own political family – the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) – to extend restrictions on grain imports.
The EPP forms the core of Poland’s main opposition group, the Civic Coalition, led by former European Council and EPP President Donald Tusk, who is also courting farmers in the run-up to the elections.
For the Commission, Friday’s decision was a lose-lose situation, said another EU diplomat: give in to Polish pressure and extend the restrictions, or let them expire and give the Law and Justice party a free hand.
“This is a very bad image for everyone, and the Commission has not helped by not responding more severely to a blatant violation of trade rules,” the diplomat said before Friday’s decision. “Now they’re stuck in quicksand.”
kyiv’s decision to take legal action at the WTO puts Brussels in a bind. Normally, the EU represents its member countries at the WTO, with trade being an exclusive political competence of the Commission. But would Brussels defend the trade measures of its member countries which the executive really opposes?
Holger Hestermeyer, a law professor at the Vienna School of International Studies, said the EU would likely seek to protect its own mandate, saying that “we do not want to set a precedent in which, in some cases, states members would act alone and then defend their own measures.
“It’s a nice trap,” said one of the diplomats mentioned above.
Jakob Hanke Vela, Camille Gijs and Jacopo Barigazzi contributed to this report. This article has been updated.