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Wider Europe Briefing: What To Do About The Glut Of Ukrainian Food In The EU


 A dump truck unloads grain at a granary in the village of Zghurivka, Ukraine.
A dump truck unloads grain at a granary in the village of Zghurivka, Ukraine.

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 two major issues: What can be done about the surplus of Ukrainian food in the EU and the latest on the bloc's new mission to Moldova.

Brief #1: As Ukrainian Food Floods The EU, Countries Take Matters Into Their Own Hands

What You Need To Know: Brussels was shocked when, on April 15, Poland and Hungary announced they would block all food products coming from Ukraine until the end of June. The measure was a direct response to the drop in prices on local markets because of the influx of foodstuffs from Ukraine.

Slovakia and Bulgaria soon followed suit, with Romania still mulling such a ban. These countries, which have been among Kyiv's biggest political supporters within the EU, have been struggling with two key initiatives the EU introduced last year to alleviate economic pressure on Ukraine.

The first was the solidarity lanes, which were aimed at facilitating the export of Ukrainian goods, mainly agricultural, to the EU and beyond via European roads, rail, and waterways as Ukrainian Black Sea ports faced Russian blockades. The second measure was the decision by the bloc in June 2022 to remove all tariffs and duties on Ukrainian goods entering the EU for one year.

The unilateral moves by Poland and Hungary cause a real dilemma for Brussels as trade policy is an exclusive EU competence, meaning member states legally cannot act alone. At first there were rumors Brussels would take measures against Budapest and Warsaw, either via fines or dragging them to court, but now there seems to be an understanding that farmers in countries neighboring Ukraine really are suffering.

To give a little perspective: In 2021, Poland imported 2,800 tons of wheat from other countries. In 2022, that number had risen to 500,000 tons. For maize, the increase was even more extreme, with imports reaching a staggering 1.8 million tons in 2022, compared to 5,800 tons the previous year. Poland is no outlier. Similar figures can be found in the other so-called frontline states.

Deep Background: On April 18, a few days after announcing it would block imports, Warsaw signaled it had struck a deal with Kyiv in which all Ukrainian products would be allowed to transit Poland but not enter its market.

According to the deal, which became valid on April 21, truck convoys with sealed goods would be monitored via GPS. While Brussels welcomed this as a first step, it is still looking for a uniform solution so as not to create trade imbalances on the EU's single market.

European Commission officials met with the trade ministers of Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia, as well as their Ukrainian counterpart, in Brussels on April 19 with the hope of finding a common agreement. The EU proposed the introduction of safeguarding measures that could be taken immediately and would last until June 30 on four Ukrainian products: wheat, maize, rapeseed, and sunflower seeds.

Under the proposed measures, these four food products could transit the five EU countries but not stay there -- with Brussels pledging to consider putting other foods on the list. While this was similar to the deal Poland struck with Ukraine, the five affected countries didn't give the EU proposal the thumbs up, as they were also looking for safeguards on eggs, poultry, honey, and various berries.

Drilling Down:

  • Talks are continuing, with the hope of coming to an EU-wide agreement when the bloc's agricultural ministers meet in Luxembourg on April 25. A sweetener could be financial support to compensate the farmers. In late March, Bulgarian, Polish, and Romanian farmers received 56 million euros ($62 million) in direct support from the EU budget. Another package worth 100 million euros, this one including Slovak and Hungarian farmers, is also on the way.
  • Then, on April 26, EU ambassadors could also prolong the tariff-free regime with Ukraine for one more year. This was proposed by the European Commission earlier in the spring -- back then, it was seen as something of a no-brainer. But with the latest crisis, the vote that was supposed to be held last week was postponed.
  • When it comes to trade measures -- such as a temporary tariff-free regime with Ukraine -- you don't need unanimity for an extension. Instead, the issue can be settled by qualified majority voting (QMV), meaning 55 percent of member states (roughly 15 out of 27) representing 65 percent of the total EU population have to vote in favor. The Swedes, who are currently chairing the rotating EU presidency, are confident of securing the required QMV but would prefer to reach a consensus on such a political hot potato.
  • Regarding the solidarity lanes, they have been hugely beneficial for both Ukraine and the EU. Kyiv has managed to export 63 million tons of goods in the past 12 months, of which around half is grain, earning the country 26 billion euros. And the EU has exported 23 million tons of goods to countries outside the bloc, worth up to 48 billion euros, since the start of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 -- "everything from diapers to Kalashnikovs," as one EU official put it.
  • With such heavy traffic, the EU-Ukraine border crossings and the solidarity lanes are under strain -- notably the Danube River, through which around half of all Ukrainian exports are shipped. The EU has earmarked 25 million euros of investment, which would mean bigger barges and the possibility of nighttime navigation to extend the hours of transport.
  • Another problem is the solidarity lanes' logistical costs are too high, accounting for about 40 percent of the total price of exports, a figure that should be no more than 10 percent. Even last year, when droughts damaged most of the EU harvests, Spain found it cheaper to import maize from Latin America than to get it from Ukraine.

Brief #2: The EU's New Plan To Fight Russian Threats And Disinformation In Moldova

What You Need To Know: On April 24, as they assemble in Luxembourg for their monthly council meeting, EU foreign ministers are expected to take two decisions related to Moldova. Firstly, they should give a green light to setting up a civilian EU mission in Chisinau, with the aim of countering hybrid threats, notably from Russia. The foreign ministers will also try to reach an agreement on a new sanctions regime, specifically targeting people who are trying to destabilize Moldova.

EU officials I have spoken to under the condition of anonymity say the two moves reflect a recognition in Brussels that Moldova needs more support from the EU to carry out political reforms, especially as the country last year received EU candidate status.

In the EU concept note outlining the need for the civilian mission, which RFE/RL has seen, it is noted that "while the probability of direct military aggression against Moldova is currently low, Moldova remains in a state of emergency as the impact of Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine has exposed a number of vulnerabilities of its national security, especially linked to malign Russian influence and the spread of transnational organized crime."

Deep Background: The new mission, which will be called the EU Partnership Mission in Moldova (EUPM Moldova), was requested by the Moldovan prime minister in January to bolster cybersecurity and combat disinformation and foreign information manipulation.

With an estimated budget of 5 million-8 million euros ($5.5 million-8.9 million) a year, Brussels will send between 25 and 40 experts to Chisinau, with non-EU personnel encouraged to join as well. The goal is to have the head of mission and core planning team deployed in early May with its official launch slated for when EU foreign ministers meet again on May 22.

While training and various equipment is high on the agenda, other deliverables could be assistance in protecting classified information and responding to cyberthreats.

Drilling Down:

  • The concept note points out that "Russia will likely continue its attempts to destabilize the current [Moldovan] government and to influence the outcome of the local elections planned for the autumn of 2023. The electoral results are also likely to prepare the ground and shape the opinion of voters ahead of the 2024 presidential election and the 2025 parliamentary elections."
  • It also notes that "credible public opinion polls continue to demonstrate that the Moldovan population is divided geopolitically and is susceptible to Russian propaganda." It cites a study in which 40 percent of respondents consider Russia's attack on Ukraine unjustified, while around 30 percent accept Russian narratives surrounding the invasion. It adds that "more alarmingly, 45 percent of respondents believe that the Moldovan government is to blame for the energy crisis in the country and only 22 percent blame Russia."
  • The document also refers to disinformation spread by Russia's Defense Ministry in February and amplified by pro-Kremlin sources and politicians in Moldova, including former Moldovan President Igor Dodon, regarding an alleged Ukrainian operation to take over the pro-Moscow breakaway Transdniester region. It adds that "there is increased potential for political and social destabilization in Moldova, which can be exploited by various political forces. A pro-Russian government in Moldova, or at least a weakened pro-European course of the country, remains an important goal for Moscow."
  • Regarding a potential new sanctions regime, the draft legal act, seen by RFE/RL, says Brussels would be able to slap visa bans and asset freezes on any individual or entity "responsible for, [and] supporting or implementing actions or policies which undermine or threaten the sovereignty and independence of the Republic of Moldova."
  • The draft document clarifies the actions and policies it is referring to as obstructing the holding of elections or attempting to overthrow the constitutional order, planning or supporting violent demonstrations or other acts of violence, and being involved in serious financial misconduct concerning public funds.
  • While the names of sanctioned individuals won't be immediately announced, officials familiar with the issue but who are not authorized to speak on the record say specific people will be identified in the near future. It is believed two of those who could be added to the sanctions list are exiled Moldovan oligarchs and politicians Vladimir Plahotniuc and Ilan Shor, who the United States is already targeting with restrictive measures.

Looking Ahead

There will be a lot on the agenda when EU foreign ministers gather for their monthly meeting in Luxembourg on April 24. Apart from the aforementioned decisions on Moldova, ministers will also have lunch with Georgian Foreign Minister Ilia Darchiashvili, in part to check on the country's progress in completing necessary reforms in order to upgrade to EU candidate status later this year.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba will also give an update on the situation in his country via video link, with ministers discussing how to engage with non-EU countries diplomatically -- notably Brazil, Chile, Kazakhstan, and Nigeria -- on the geopolitical consequences of Russia's war on Ukraine.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) will meet in Strasbourg for its spring session, which will last the entire week, from April 24 to April 28. Much of the discussion will be devoted to the Council of Europe summit in Reykjavik next month in which heads of state and government from the 46 member states will meet for the first time in this format since 2005. PACE members will also watch a video statement from Ukraine's first lady, Olena Zelenska, on the plight of Ukrainian children forcibly removed by Russia during the war.

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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There will be no newsletter next week as it's the May holiday in Europe, but we'll be back in your inboxes on May 8.

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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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