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‘Was That Man Drunk?’ Ukrainian Grain Fight Triggers EU Fury

When Ukraine’s trade representative, Taras Kachka, revealed to POLITICO that Kyiv was going to sue EU governments in a dispute over grain, it proved too much for one of the bloc’s diplomats to take. 

“Was that man drunk?” the exasperated envoy demanded, all thoughts of diplomacy vaporizing in the heat of his frustration. 

Ukraine made good on Kachka’s promise on Monday, formally filing lawsuits against Poland, Hungary and Slovakia at the World Trade Organization after the trio decided to defy Brussels and ban Ukrainian grain imports. 

The dispute has fractured European unity, leaving other EU diplomats privately furious with Poland, especially, for going rogue. And the clash is sorely testing relations between Kyiv and Brussels at a sensitive moment in Ukraine’s 18 month-old war against Russia’s invaders. 

The worst bit? It’s all just a taste of the fights to come. 

For his part, Kachka barely flinched at the “drunk” jibe. EU diplomats, he told POLITICO, were apparently “not ready for this kind of clear language” from Kyiv. 

The tensions erupted on Friday night, after the European Commission decided to allow Ukrainian grain sales across the EU. That ended restrictions on grain imports which five eastern EU member countries had originally sought, and won, 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 — spurning the European Commission, violating the rules of the EU single market, and enraging fellow EU governments. 

Part-time allies

The three countries were guilty of “part-time solidarity” with Ukraine, complained German Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir. “When it suits you, you are in solidarity and when it doesn’t suit you, you are not,” Özdemir said Monday as he arrived for a meeting of EU farm ministers.

One EU diplomat said the unilateral move proves that winning votes counts for more than economic concerns in Poland, which is in the middle of a high-stakes campaign ahead of next month’s election. “It’s not about economic concerns anymore, but about national political goals,” the diplomat said. “We already knew that, but now it’s out in the open and clear to everyone.” 

The dispute lays bare one of the conflicts at the heart of the Western alliance supporting Ukraine. How much longer can the EU (and Ukraine’s other allies) keep up their support for Kyiv, in the face of political pressure to boost their domestic economies and — like in Poland — win votes? 

The question will only become sharper as Ukraine, an agricultural powerhouse, seeks to become a fully fledged member of the EU. 

On Tuesday, European affairs ministers from the bloc’s 27 capitals will over lunch discuss the potential future enlargement of the bloc to admit Ukraine and nations in the Western Balkans.

EU leaders have been vocal about the need to open the EU’s door to Ukraine after Russia’s full-scale invasion began.

But, increasingly, the bloc is starting to realize that accommodating a war-devastated country of more than 40 million people means the EU itself will have to change.

Admitting the one-time breadbasket of the Soviet Union to the EU’s single market would make Ukraine the biggest beneficiary of the EU’s agricultural subsidies, forcing an overhaul of the Common Agricultural Policy. Then there are bigger questions including over the costs of reconstruction, regional aid and the need to reform the EU’s internal processes. 

In all of these debates, the EU’s existing member states stand to lose power and money to Ukraine. 

“Grain is our first test,” said one EU official, who like the diplomats quoted in this article, was granted anonymity in order to speak candidly about sensitive matters. 

Polish polls

The maneuvering by Poland’s right-wing government, battling to win re-election next month, has been winding up other EU member countries for weeks.

Together with the Baltic countries, Warsaw has led the charge for tougher European economic sanctions against Russia, and for more weapons and money for Ukraine. But when faced with the consequences of supporting Ukraine for its own farmers, it’s amazing how fast Poland is “throwing Ukrainians under the bus,” said the EU official cited above.

“This move by Poland, Hungary and Slovakia is undermining the whole unity of the EU vis-à-vis Ukraine,” said another EU diplomat, adding that “the Commission should probably sue those member states. It’s a violation of internal market rules.” 

The European Commission is, however, in a delicate position. Under its mandate to uphold the EU single market, the executive can launch an infringement procedure — which would also send a signal of support to Kyiv.

A European Commission spokesperson said on Monday that the executive is still analyzing the bans from the three countries. 

But Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen also needs to weigh the impact of such a move on Poland’s October 15 general election, where the ruling Law and Justice Party needs to hold on to the rural vote to win an unprecedented third term in office.

Proclaiming the import ban at the weekend, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said: “We stood our ground. We defend the Polish farmer. We defend the Polish countryside.”

Von der Leyen also came under pressure from members of her own political family — the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) — to extend the grain import restrictions. 

The EPP forms the core of Poland’s main opposition group, the Civic Coalition, led by former European Council and EPP President Donald Tusk, which has also been courting farmers in the run-up to the elections.

For the Commission, Friday’s decision was a lose-lose situation, said another EU diplomat: To give in to Polish pressure and extend the restrictions, or to let them expire and give the Law and Justice party a free hand.

“It’s a really bad look for everyone, and the Commission didn’t help by not responding more sternly to a flagrant breach of trade rules,” the diplomat said ahead of Friday’s decision. “Now they’re stuck in quicksand.”

Kyiv’s decision to launch legal action at the WTO puts Brussels in a bind. Normally, the EU represents its member countries at the WTO, as trade is an exclusive policy competence of the Commission. But would Brussels defend trade measures of its member countries that the executive actually opposes? 

Holger Hestermeyer, a law professor at the Vienna School of International Studies said the EU will probably seek to protect its own remit, saying “we don’t want to set a precedent in which in some cases, member states go at it alone and then defend their own measures.”

“That’s a nice catch-22,” said one of the diplomats mentioned above.

Source : politico