Kyiv sues neighbours over grain ban

Ukraine presents action plan to the EU after lodging complaint with the World Trade Organisation against Poland, Slovakia and Hungary

Farmers participate in a nationwide agricultural protest in Dragoman, Bulgaria. EPA
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Kyiv on Monday said it had filed lawsuits at the World Trade Organisation against three neighbours – Poland, Slovakia and Hungary – after they defied EU rules and maintained bans on Ukrainian grain imports, which they claim threaten the livelihoods of local farmers.

“It is crucially important for us to prove that individual member states cannot ban imports of Ukrainian goods,” Ukraine's Economy Minister Yulia Svyrydenko said in a statement.

“That is why we are filing lawsuits against them.

“At the same time, we hope that these countries will lift their restrictions and we will not have to settle the matter in courts for a long time.”

Poland said that it would not change its position despite the legal proceedings, which come after months of diplomatic tension over Ukraine's agricultural exports despite the two countries being strong allies.

“We maintain our position, we think it is correct, it results from an economic analysis and powers derived from EU and international law,” said government spokesman Piotr Mueller on Polsat News.

“A complaint before the WTO doesn't impress us.”

Meanwhile in Bulgaria, which lifted a ban on Ukrainian grains last week, farmers took to the streets demanding it be reintroduced.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine last year and the near closure of Kyiv's export routes via the Black Sea has triggered an increase in land exports, driving down the prices of agricultural products in neighbouring countries.

In May, the European Commission agreed to introduce a temporary ban on Ukrainian wheat, maize, rapeseed and sunflower seed exports to Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia.

But on Friday, the commission lifted the ban, saying that market distortions no longer apply after the EU increased the capacity of so-called solidarity lanes which enable the export of Ukrainian goods by land via Europe to the rest of the world.

Brussels called on the five countries to refrain from taking unilateral measures.

“What’s important is that all countries work in spirit of compromise, engage constructively and that we find a solution,” said European Commissioner for Trade Valdis Dombrovskis.

Yet in some countries like Poland, politicians fear a backlash in the ballot at an upcoming parliamentary election next month.

Along with Slovakia and Hungary, Warsaw openly defied Brussels and continued enforcing a ban on some Ukrainian agricultural imports, causing anger in Kyiv.

Some European capitals have also expressed frustration with the three countries, with France saying that European solidarity was at stake.

“For solidarity there needs to be unity … We must keep hold of the two elements, otherwise the European project is at risk. The single market is a fundamental element,” France's Agriculture Minister Marc Fesneau said on Monday.

The dispute not only tests European solidarity – it also drives a wedge between Ukraine and two of its staunchest military supporters since the start of the war: Poland and Slovakia.

In March, they became the first Nato countries to send MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine. Poland supplied more than 100 T-72 tanks last year and is a key hub for weapon supplies being transferred to Ukraine.

Romania has not acted separately yet but Prime Minister Marcel Ciolacu said on Monday that it would consider the option should imports from Ukraine rise.

Ukraine presented an action plan to avoid a surge in exports during a meeting on Monday in Brussels with representatives from Moldova, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and the European Commission.

Executive Vice President and European Commissioner for Trade Valdis Dombrovskis addresses a press conference. AFP

A commission representative told The National that such measures would entail Kyiv regularly sharing data and creating an export licensing system that includes a verification and authorisation mechanism for wheat, maize, rapeseed and sunflower seed exports.

Discussions on the action plan are expected to continue.

Updated: September 18, 2023, 7:17 PM