Eastern European leaders have consistently supported Ukraine as it battles Russian forces, but they are struggling to maintain that united front as their farmers contend with Ukrainian grain that has flooded their domestic markets and depressed prices.

Leaders of Poland, Hungary and Slovakia, all of which border Ukraine, are faced on one side with supporting the country's need to export its corn, wheat, sunflower oil and rapeseed during the war. On the other side, those leaders are being challenged from within by irate farmers who are preparing their own crops and seeing domestic prices fall because their markets are saturated with Ukrainian farm commodities.

As the pressure from within on those eastern EU leaders has mounted, they have begun banning Ukrainian grain. Poland was the first, but Hungary and Slovakia followed close behind.

The problem, say EU officials, is that member countries of the bloc are not allowed to make their own trade laws, and the EU already has a deal in place with Ukraine that ensures its grains and other commodities can flow freely.

European Commission spokeswoman Miriam Garcia Ferrer stressed to reporters this week that “trade policy is of exclusive competence, which means that it is at European Union level that such decisions can be taken. That is why we have been saying that unilateral action is not possible under EU trade policy.”

Ukrainian grain was originally supposed to just pass through Hungary and on to the Adriatic Sea where it could be shipped worldwide, but Hungarian dealers found it was easy to divert the grain to local buyers at deep discounts, one government official tells Agri-Pulse.

“We are one hundred percent with Ukraine,” the official said, talking about the war against Russia, but stressed that the Hungarian ag sector needs protection.

And that’s the pinch the EU is feeling. These countries are offering up support for Ukraine – whether it's speaking out against Russia’s invasion or taking in Ukrainian refugees or helping arm Ukraine’s military.

Ferrer acknowledged that the European Commission could potentially take legal action against Poland or Hungary, but he refused to discuss the possibility.

Eric Mamer.jpgEric Mamer, European Commission

“We are dealing with a war,” said commission spokesman Eric Mamer. “And the European Union, and its member states, among which Poland and all of the member states that border with Ukraine, have been doing their utmost in order to help Ukraine and this is extremely welcome. The point is, of course, that it is not our objective nor anybody's objective to wreak difficulties on populations within the European Union whilst we are supporting Ukraine.” 

But Eastern EU countries are also now finding problems with Ukrainian grain. Hungary, which bans genetically modified crops, says it found traces of GMOs as well as sanitary and phytosanitary issues with Ukrainian corn.

Slovakia, which shares borders with Poland, Hungary and Ukraine, described similar problems with Ukrainian wheat. The country’s State Veterinary and Food Administration (SVPS) said on April 13 that it tested 1,500 metric tons of Ukrainian wheat it found at a mill in the city of Kolárovo and detected pesticides that the agency said are banned in Slovakia.

Based on that, the SVPS said it "does not recommend the import of any Ukrainian grain and its products.”

Slovakian Agriculture Minister Samuel Vlčan notified his counterparts in Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Germany and Austria on April 14. The official government notice that went out alluded to the problem that Slovakian farmers were complaining most about: “the protection of markets against the import of cheap commodities from Ukraine.”

The action against Ukrainian farm commodities is something the European Commission has been working quietly to prevent. The commission, recognizing that “trade disruptions incurred by the Russian aggression should not take place at the expense of farmers from neighboring countries,” approved last month a package worth roughly the equivalent of about $62 million for disbursement to farmers in Poland ($32 million), Romania ($11 million) and Bulgaria ($18 million). 

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Romania and Bulgaria have not restricted Ukrainian exports, but the funds did not stop Polish farmers from holding protests that spurred the government to take action. Now, Hungary and Slovakia are making known their displeasure with Ukrainian grain exports and the European Commission is putting together a proposal for a second aid package.

The Ukrainian government is angered over the restrictions imposed by the Eastern European countries and is urging more talks with Poland and Hungary.

Both Poland and Hungary have agreed to continue to allow Ukrainian ag exports to flow through their countries by rail but are strictly prohibiting those trains from stopping and discharging the commodities to Polish and Hungarian buyers.

Ukraine’s Agriculture Ministry says that it is – at least for now – willing to accept that.

“We understand that Polish farmers have a difficult situation, but we emphasize that now the most difficult situation is for Ukrainian farmers,” the ministry said in a statement. “It is on the territory of Ukraine that the war is going on, it is Ukrainian farmers who suffer colossal losses from Russia's war against Ukraine, and it is Ukrainian farmers who die in their fields from Russian mines. At the same time, Ukrainian agricultural producers understand the needs of their Polish colleagues, hope for mutual understanding and expect a constructive dialogue to make an agreed decision.”

Hungary, like Poland, is proposing only to block Ukrainian grain from domestic markets through the summer.

That should be about mid-August in Hungary, said an official. 

“When all the storage facilities are emptied after the harvest, it won’t be a problem,” the official said.

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