The Kyiv administration is going to sue Hungary, Poland and Slovakia over the three EU countries banning the imports of Ukrainian grain, the news broke last Saturday. Their decision came after the European Commission had announced that it would lift its Ukrainian grain import ban last Friday. The Ukrainian government is still furious while the trio emphasizes that a national government’s duty is to protect domestic markets from the influx of cheap Ukrainian agricultural products.
The Commission’s initial ban was installed as an emergency measure after four CEE member states, namely Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia announced that they would restrict the import of Ukrainian agri-food products to their markets back in April. Their governments, in return, agreed to approve transits of such products to other EU member states otherwise unaffected by the ban.
This measure was met with severe criticism both within the EU and from Kyiv. ‘Our common priority should be an extension of the suspension of import duties, quotas and trade defence measures on Ukrainian exports to the European Union,’ Olga Stefanishyna, Ukraine’s deputy PM said back then. Others complained about the ‘selective’ nature of European solidarity towards the war-torn country.
‘How Deep Is Your Love?’
While the actual meaning of the word ‘solidarity’ is definitely up to debate—is it taking care of Ukrainian refugees? is it arming the Ukrainian army? is it giving in to virtually all demands of the Kyiv government?—, it is certainly interesting to see how far individual governments are willing to go in ‘solidarity’.
The Warsaw government, for example, was quick to jump on the warmongering bandwagon once Russia attacked Ukraine. Poland was ready to arm the Ukrainian army, even at the expense of losing certain defence capabilities of its own, while generously accommodating hundreds of thousands of refugees from the neighbouring state.
But when it came to grain imports, Polish solidarity seemed to end all of a sudden.
Slovakia’s turbulent coalition government acted similarly, albeit on a smaller scale. Quite remarkably, Slovakia donated its entire air defence system to Kyiv, moreover, it was one of the first to sponsor the Ukrainian war effort in such a way. But when it came to grain imports, Slovak solidarity seemed to end all of a sudden.
Why? It is not hard to guess: parliamentary elections are coming up in both countries. Of course, now—to quote Piotr Müller, a spokesperson of the Polish government—it is ‘in the interest of Polish farmers and consumers’ to rein in the influx of Ukrainian goods at dumped prices. Of course, as Lajos Ódor, Slovakia’s PM with Hungarian roots says, it is now crucial ‘to prevent excessive pressure on the Slovak market in order to remain fair to our farmers as well’. It seems that the closer the polling day gets, or rather, the closer the concessions to the Kyiv government hit to home, the more intensively the ‘solidarity’ with Ukraine vaporizes.
‘Appropriate Responses from Ukraine’
Of course, it is every government’s right to contemplate measures to counter outside influences that threaten their national economy’s stability. Accordingly, Hungary’s government decided to impose an import ban on as many as 24 different agricultural products from Ukraine. The Polish and the Slovak administrations’ measures are somewhat less comprehensive, which may be a consequence of their otherwise more peaceful relations with Kyiv.
The Ukrainian government stayed true to its— mind you, doubtful— reputation and promised ‘appropriate responses’ to the three V4 countries’ move. ‘If the decisions of our neighbours are not neighbourly, Ukraine will respond in a civilized manner,’ Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said.
Notably, Ukraine’s ‘appropriate’ and ‘civilized’ countermeasures have come in two forms so far: Kyiv first announced that it would sue Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia at the World Trade Organization (WTO), then imposed a ban on Polish fruit and vegetable exports in retaliation. ‘I think that Hungary here is making a political statement that it wants to block trade with Ukraine and as well disregard Brussels completely. And that is why I think that this is a very bold movement against both of us from Budapest’, Taras Kachka, Ukraine’s trade representative to the EU told POLITICO earlier this week—
in an unmistakably menacing tone.
‘There Is No Unity There’
‘The systemic approach of Budapest and Warsaw of ignoring the position of the EU institutions in trade policy, I think that will be a problem for the EU in general, because there is no unity there’, he said. This latter comment seems to be true indeed.
While the European Commission, as Ursula von der Leyen’s State of the Union performance suggested, seems united in support of Kyiv’s case, some member states— even beside the notoriously contrarian Hungary—are becoming increasingly stressed out by Brussels’ Ukraine policy. The grain deal in question caused a stir in Romania, too, where some 20 per cent of the population was employed in the agricultural sector as of 2018.
Apart from the indeed very noble cause of ‘solidarity’, the European Commission’s obsession with the preferably seamless import of Ukrainian agricultural goods to EU markets seems quite challenging to grasp if observed from the European integration’s perspective. Since its launch in 1962, the EU’s one-of-a-kind Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has played a central role in the Union’s life—and in its budget. While it is one of the CAP’s most crucial objectives to ‘safeguard European Union farmers to make a reasonable living’, the Commission’s current policy seems to induce just the opposite. Whether this sparks unity or not, remains to be seen.
Kyiv Doublethink Strikes Again
On a somewhat different note, it is quite interesting to observe Kyiv’s communication on the matter. For a long while, most of the global West was keen on fulfilling virtually all demands of the Zelensky administration to support Ukraine in a war effort supposed to defend Europe and the West from Russian aggression. Undoubtedly, the public support for these policies has been relatively strong in Europe and in the United States.
Nevertheless, a year and a half into a war on Europe’s political and cultural periphery, many supporters are now showing signs of fatigue—provided they are still in power, unlike Finland’s thrilled ex-PM Sanna Marin, whose pro-Ukrainian (or perhaps simply anti-Russian?) enthusiasm did not quite seem to convince the majority of the electorate earlier this year. After all,
Kyiv cannot seem to have enough of Western supplies for its counter-offensive
that does not appear to be delivering spectacular achievements against the allegedly shrinking Russian military.
Quite remarkably, Taras Kachka is now calling out the people-pleasing nature of the governments imposing the grain ban. ‘What they [the government of Poland] are doing is based on public opinion,’ he condemned the Morawiecki administration.
While Kyiv’s disillusionment with the trio’s decision is fairly understandable, it might be worth noting that not so long ago, the very same Zelensky administration ceaselessly praised the very same Polish and Slovak— but not the Hungarian— governments and nations for their ‘solidarity’, that is, providing all sorts of assistance to Ukraine, arming its forces and emblazoning virtually every public building with the country’s yellow-blue flag. Can it be that, in Kyiv’s view, acting in accordance with the prevailing public opinion is only justifiable if it suites Ukraine’s interests?
Of course, public opinion tends to be double-edged. However, the way Kyiv reacts to this very basic feature of democracies, based on which most European countries and policymaking works, may not look all too promising when it comes to Ukraine’s long-desired accession to the EU. For doublethink, albeit a very useful tool in all politicians’ toolbox, is known for cutting both ways, too.
The views expressed by our guest authors are theirs and do not necessarily represent the views of Hungarian Conservative.