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Wider Europe Briefing: NATO's Busy Autumn And How The EU Will Cope With A Glut Of Ukrainian Food


Given that the United States and Germany were among the most vocal skeptics in Vilnius of offering Ukraine a clear pathway to NATO membership, chances are slim that the American position will shift much next year.
Given that the United States and Germany were among the most vocal skeptics in Vilnius of offering Ukraine a clear pathway to NATO membership, chances are slim that the American position will shift much next year.

Welcome to Wider Europe, RFE/RL's newsletter focusing on the key issues concerning the European Union, NATO, and other institutions and their relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe's Eastern neighborhoods.

I'm RFE/RL Europe Editor Rikard Jozwiak, and this week I'm drilling down on what we can expect from NATO this autumn and how the EU will deal with the excess of Ukrainian agricultural products in the bloc.

Brief #1: What Is NATO Up To This Autumn?

What You Need To Know: After an eventful summit in Vilnius in July, NATO will return in the next few months to "bread and butter" issues. That means various military exercises, at least two ministerial meetings in Brussels before the end of the year (one for the bloc's defense ministers, the other for its foreign ministers) and possibly welcoming a new member, Sweden.

There was an agreement between Stockholm and Ankara at the Vilnius summit that appeared to pave the way for Swedish membership. But the ratification process still hasn't begun in either Turkey or Hungary, which has pledged to align its policy with Ankara's. NATO officials I've spoken to on condition of anonymity still believe Sweden will become a member this autumn, most likely in October, despite recent comments by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hinting that Sweden must first look into the Koran burnings there over the summer to avoid further slowing the ratification process.

Deep Background: While NATO waits to welcome member No. 32, its autumn will essentially consist of implementing some of the things decided on in Vilnius. For example, are the updated defense plans outlining how NATO should respond if any member's territory is attacked truly sufficient?

According to NATO sources I spoke to: "This autumn it is about checking the executability of our plans," or "putting flesh to the bones." In other words, are there enough combat-ready troops and military equipment to quickly come to the defense of potential frontline member states in the east?

NATO will need the answers by the end of the year. Then there's the issue of turning the multinational battalions in the three Baltic states and Poland into brigades, going from roughly 1,000 troops to something closer to 3,000-5,000. This takes longer, as it requires facilities like housing and bigger training ranges for the new arrivals. Preparations can seemingly be completed in Lithuania, where Germany is the lead nation, by early 2024, and a bit later in the year in the other places.

Drilling Down:

  • We are also likely to see the first-ever NATO-Ukraine Council at the ministerial level (the council met on the ambassadorial level over the summer) when NATO defense ministers meet in Brussels on October 12-13 for their regular autumn ministerial session. The council was created in Vilnius and is meant to upgrade Kyiv's relations with the alliance.
  • The idea now is to ensure the NATO-Ukraine Council is a more useful forum for Ukraine to approach NATO membership than its "predecessor," the NATO-Ukraine Commission. In the council, Ukraine will be sitting as a sort of coequal, with the right to call meetings with the military alliance whenever it sees fit.
  • The big question is whether that's enough. NATO will work on two documents in the autumn to define its relationship with Kyiv: an annual national program for Ukraine and a proper work program for the NATO-Ukraine Council. This is very much a bureaucratic exercise. But for Ukraine's biggest supporters inside the bloc, known as the Bucharest Eight, the most important thing is that these papers avoid any new milestones or additional conditions for Ukraine to finally become a member.
  • For the Bucharest Eight -- Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia -- the aim is clear: Ukraine is already interoperable with the alliance and a political decision is all that remains, i.e. should Ukraine become a NATO member soon or not?
  • What is less clear is whether this decision will come at the next NATO summit in Washington, D.C. in July 2024. Of course, with so much dependent on the course of the war in Ukraine, it is far too early to make predictions. But it is worth noting that the summit will fall in the middle of the U.S. presidential campaign season; and given that the United States and Germany were among the most vocal skeptics in Vilnius of offering Ukraine a clear pathway to membership, chances are slim that the American position will shift much next year. It is entirely possible that the Washington summit becomes a one-day celebration of NATO turning 75, with few real political decisions taken.
  • In the meantime, NATO will keep a keen eye on the Ukrainian counteroffensive. A few officials I have spoken to acknowledge that the counteroffensive may not have been as impressive as some perhaps were hoping for initially, but they are quick to caution that it is easy to sit far away in safety and make such remarks.
  • Another description you hear a lot from NATO HQ when describing Kyiv's push to recover more territory is "steady and incremental" along with appreciative comments that Kyiv is managing this without air support. While the training of Ukrainian pilots on F-16s is slowly starting now in places like Denmark, the Netherlands, and Romania, the jets won't be used in Ukrainian skies until next year.
  • Aside from the war, speculation will intensify over top positions at NATO. Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg recently agreed to stay on for another year, but he will step down at the Washington summit after a decade in the job. There is some clamoring for the military alliance's first female head, but don't rule out the outgoing Dutch Premier Mark Rutte or Pedro Sanchez if he fails to cobble together a new Spanish government.
  • The chair of the NATO military committee, one of the foremost military leaders in the organization, will also be up for grabs, with incumbent Dutchman Rob Bauer set to leave in 2024 and the current chief of the Italian Defense Staff, Admiral Giuseppe Cavo Dragone, a favorite to replace him.
  • Cybersecurity is also increasingly important for the alliance. Watch for its first-ever cyberdefense conference, in Berlin in November, bringing together high-level political leaders, military experts, and potentially even private-sector players.

Brief #2: What To Do With The Glut Of Ukrainian Food In The EU?

What You Need To Know: The European Commission is facing tricky decisions in the coming weeks over the influx of Ukrainian agricultural products into the European Union. September 15 marks the end of the so-called temporary preventive measures that have allowed wheat, maize, rapeseed, and sunflower seed from Ukraine to transit through Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia. All four of those commodities must remain "unsealed" until they reach other EU member states -- ideally to EU ports to be shipped on to developing nations around the world. These measures came about in early May after Poland, then Hungary, Slovakia, and Bulgaria unilaterally shut their borders to all Ukrainian exports a month earlier, complaining that a glut of Ukrainian agricultural goods was filling up local storage and depressing prices for local farmers.

The European Commission scrambled for a solution that would satisfy the five frontline states (the above-mentioned four plus Romania) while being acceptable for Kyiv. There was also a need to ensure that Ukrainian agriproducts reached third countries, notably in Africa and Asia, that have reported food shortages.

Moreover, there was evident interest in safeguarding against major distortions on the EU's internal market -- something that the European Commission is officially in charge of. That's a lot of circles to square, and Brussels' solution in early May was to agree to preventive measures regarding the four products for the five frontline countries for one month, plus financial compensation for their farmers.

In June, the measures were prolonged with the understanding that they would be phased out on September 15 and, in a separate decision, the EU approved the extension by another year of a tariff-free regime with Ukraine covering all Ukrainian products entering the bloc.

Deep Background: Now the five frontline EU member states are pushing for an extension until the end of the year. You have crucial parliamentary elections in Slovakia on September 30 and in Poland on October 15, and farmers are an important and influential constituency in both countries.

The European Commission does have some understanding for the five, and numbers back up their worries. Before 2022, EU agricultural imports from Ukraine totaled 7 billion euros, and 90 percent came via the Black Sea route. By 2022, that figure had risen to 13 billion euros and 5 billion of the additional 6 billion euros of goods ended up on the markets of the frontline EU states.

The big culprit here is, of course, Russia, which has severely hampered Ukraine's lucrative Black Sea trade. Since the outbreak of the war, 40 percent of Ukrainian grain has been exported via the Black Sea Grain Initiative that expired in July after Russia opted not to renew it.

Turkey, which was key to the 2022 initiative that was struck to alleviate the global food shortage by opening trade from a handful of Ukrainian ports, has been working hard to resuscitate the deal. President Erdogan was expected to push for its renewal during a planned meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on September 4.

There's a question, however, as to whether Russia is interested in a renewal. By strangling the Ukrainian Black Sea option, which normally allows for larger and cheaper worldwide exports with huge cargo ships compared to transporting overland in the EU, Russia has seemingly outmaneuvered an important trade competitor and made its own grain cheaper and more lucrative worldwide.

Drilling Down:

  • Ukraine obviously wants the temporary measures removed on September 15 but finds itself in a difficult situation when it comes to its agricultural products. Only 3 percent of the products that are currently transported via the EU's solidarity lanes instead of the Black Sea route are being shipped from the EU to third countries. There simply aren't many global buyers for such expensive goods. Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain have instead increased Ukrainian imports, especially of maize, which is vital to feeding livestock and boosting meat production.
  • The EU is also investing to the tune of 1 billion euros to improve the Solidarity lanes -- and to reduce the costs for Ukrainian traders. The most obvious remedies include removing bottlenecks on various EU-Ukrainian border crossings by streamlining customs services, improving roads leading to the crossing, and increasing personnel there. But such measures take time to implement.
  • The Baltic states have suggested easing the administrative burden on the EU-Ukrainian borders by shifting customs, veterinary, and phytosanitary controls to five Baltic ports (Tallinn, Riga, Ventspils, Liepaja, and Klaipeda), which have a combined annual capacity of 25 million tons. Croatia has also suggested using its Adriatic ports in a similar way.
  • Currently, the most likely scenario is a prolongation of the preventive measures, judging by indications I've gotten from EU officials. And not only that. The frontline five want more products, including eggs and poultry, added to the four types of goods already listed.
  • The European Commission has so far indicated there is no great influx from Ukraine of eggs or poultry. Raspberries, however, might be added after what one European Commission official described to me as a "drastic increase" in the EU market.
  • The European Commissioner for agriculture, Janusz Wojciechowski, recently floated the idea of compensating Kyiv along with any extension. Noting that EU transit costs around 30 euros per ton and Ukraine needs to export around 20 million tons of food produce in the coming months, the European Commission would offer 600 million euros to Kyiv.
  • This would act as a sort of economic subsidy to Ukrainian traders to enable the transport of grain all the way to EU ports. Ukraine would reportedly consider such an option, but it's unclear whether the entire European Commission would agree to the compensation.
  • Expect that some sort of solution will be forthcoming as early as this week, especially given that a working platform set up in May to tackle the issue comprising relevant officials from the five frontline states, Ukraine, and the European Commission will discuss the issue in Brussels on September 5 as the bloc's agricultural ministers are meeting in the Spanish city of Cordoba on September 4-5.

Looking Ahead

Most eyes this week will turn to New Delhi and the G20 summit there on September 9-10. EU institutions will be represented by both European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel.

The leaders of France, Germany, and Italy are also expected to come, as are the premiers of the Netherlands and Spain, both of whom are invited as G20 guests.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has announced that his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, will replace him in India him due to Putin's "busy schedule."

India is not a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has issued an arrest warrant for the Russian leader, so they are not obliged act on that warrant.

Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani will be in Brussels on September 7. Among other things, she will visit NATO HQ in order to share information on the latest security developments in Kosovo.

NATO boosted its presence there in May after its KFOR peacekeeping troops were attacked by ethnic Serbs following the forcible seating of ethnic Albanian mayors after boycotted elections in the Serb-dominated north.

A week later, on September 14, Brussels will host the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo for another round of the EU-mediated Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, the first such meeting since that violent episode.

That's all for this week. Feel free to reach out to me on any of these issues on Twitter @RikardJozwiak, or on e-mail at jozwiakr@rferl.org.

Until next time,

Rikard Jozwiak

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.

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About The Newsletter

Wider Europe

The Wider Europe newsletter briefs you every Monday on key issues concerning the EU, NATO, and other institutions’ relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe’s Eastern neighborhoods.

For more than a decade as a correspondent in Brussels, Rikard Jozwiak covered all the major events and crises related to the EU’s neighborhood and how various Western institutions reacted to them -- the war in Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, Russia’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, the downing of MH17, dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, the EU and NATO enlargement processes in the Western Balkans, as well as visa liberalizations, free-trade deals, and countless summits.

Now out of the “Brussels bubble,” but still looking in -- this time from the heart of Europe, in Prague -- he continues to focus on the countries where Brussels holds huge sway, but also faces serious competition from other players, such as Russia and, increasingly, China.

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