Extension of ban on Ukraine grain exports to EU would be 'unacceptable', says Zelenskyy

Five countries want ban in place beyond mid-September

A grain depot destroyed by a Russian drone strike in Odesa, Ukraine. Reuters
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President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Monday said that the extension of an EU ban on Ukrainian grain imports to five countries past its mid-September deadline would be “unacceptable”.

Five central European countries plan to request an extension at a meeting of the EU's 27 agriculture ministers in Brussels on Tuesday.

“Our position is clear: blocking (Ukrainian) exports by land after September 15, when the relevant restrictions expire, is unacceptable in any form,” said Mr Zelenskyy on the Telegram messaging app.

Introduced in May, the ban enforced by Poland, Bulgarian, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania on imports of Ukrainian wheat, maize, rapeseed and sunflower oil has led to tensions with Kyiv.

The EU Council's agenda states that a Polish delegation on Tuesday will inform ministers on behalf of the five countries of the “continuing difficult situation on agricultural markets.”

Ministers will also discuss the countries' request to extend “EU preventive measures for certain products originating in Ukraine beyond September 15".

The five agriculture ministers agreed during a previous meeting in Warsaw on a joint position ahead of Tuesday's meeting.

Polish minister Robert Telus said the ban has had an “unexpectedly good effect” by allowing more Ukrainian grain through his country on its way to other markets instead of being sold in Poland.

Cheap Ukrainian cereals have driven down prices for local agricultural products, triggering protests at a particularly sensitive time for Poland, where a parliamentary election is scheduled for later this year.

Poland has assumed leadership in the talks between the five countries and the EU.

But discussions about the ban’s renewal come at a highly sensitive time for Ukraine.

Russia last week withdrew from a UN-Turkey brokered agreement that had allowed Ukrainian grain exports via the Black Sea. Russia has since stepped up its attacks on Ukrainian port and grain infrastructure, pushing up global prices.

Ukraine’s Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal last week described Poland’s ban on his country’s agricultural products as an “unfriendly and populist move that will severely impact global food security and Ukraine’s economy”.

In a call with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen a day after his critical tweet, Mr Shmyhal said Kyiv had agreed with the commission to simplify procedures and develop new border crossing points and transport routes.

The commission is holding intense discussions behind closed doors with Ukraine, Moldova and the five Eastern European countries described in EU circles as “front-line” states because many of them share borders with Ukraine.

It is “working very intensively with the five front-line members states, Ukraine and Moldova to solve logistical problems and increase the capacity of the solidarity lanes”, European Commission spokeswoman for agriculture Miriam Garcia Ferrer told The National.

The so-called “solidarity lanes” were set up by the commission three months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year to help Kyiv export its agricultural produce through land borders with Poland and Romania.

Ms Garcia Ferrer declined to comment on whether the commission supported the front-line states’ request to extend the ban.

The states have argued that the solidarity lanes must work more effectively in light of Russia pulling out of the UN grain deal.

“We must do everything possible to ensure that Ukrainian production ends up on traditional markets with regards not only to the balance of the EU internal market, but also to global food security,” a Slovak diplomat told The National.

“The non-extension of the Black Sea Grain Initiative will undoubtedly complicate the situation even further,” they said.

Bratislava expects a 12 per cent increase in its own grain harvest but fears that its farmers will face difficulties selling it “due to the overfull storage capacities for this time of year after struggling with selling last years' production,” the Slovak diplomat added.

Some nations have warned they would introduce protective measures whatever the commission's response.

Hungarian Minister of Agriculture Istvan Nagy last week said “if the EU does not extend the ban after 15 September, Hungary will put in place its tools to protect farmers”.

Mr Telus has said he sees “no substantive argument” for the ban to expire mid-September.

With the exception of Hungary, which has repeatedly slowed down negotiations in Brussels aimed at sending financial and military support to Ukraine, the front-line nations include some of Kyiv’s strongest military backers.

In March, Poland and Slovakia became the first Nato countries to send MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine.

A recently sworn-in Bulgarian government last month said it would send about 100 armoured personnel carriers to Kyiv.

Updated: July 24, 2023, 5:15 PM