Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia have banned the import of Ukrainian agricultural products after weeks of farmers’ protests across Central and Eastern Europe. Duty-free imports of Ukrainian goods have reduced the competitiveness of more expensively produced local products on domestic markets, they say.
The decision marks the single biggest breach in European solidarity with Ukraine during the 14 months of Russia’s all-out war. The European Commission said the right to block the imports was an EU-level power and termed the decision “not acceptable.” There are now concerns that other states in the region, which have also complained, may follow suit and further damage the Ukrainian economy.
Poland banned the imports on April 15 to “protect” domestic agricultural production, with the country’s development and technology minister Waldemar Buda tweeting the following day that the ban was total, “including the ban on transit through Poland,” he said. The decision encompasses grain, sugar, and dairy products.
Hungarian Agriculture Minister Istvan Nagy followed with a statement on Facebook early on April 16, saying the country was “committed to representing the interests of Hungarian economic society” and “in the absence of meaningful EU measure, it is temporarily prohibiting the import of grain” and other agricultural products. Hungary has done far less to support Ukraine than almost any other country in the region, meaning its decision was less surprising.
The issues seem to have been caused by bottlenecks in Ukrainian exports to third countries. Unable to move goods swiftly through Poland and other transit countries, they are instead being sold on local markets, so depressing prices.
The three countries to have acted may just be the beginning. Bulgaria, Romania, and the Czech Republic have also been facing angry protests from farmers also struggling with the presence of Ukrainian goods in their markets.
Czech media reported that local farmers had been complaining widely about grain imports at the beginning of March, with the country’s Agrarian Chamber asking for tighter controls. “Farmers are currently encountering a rapid drop in prices and a lack of interest in cereals and oilseeds caused by excess supply over demand,” its head, Jan Dolezal, told Novinky at the time.
In March, Bulgarian farmers blocked the road between the border city of Pleven and the country’s fifth-largest city, Ruse, during protests there. Participants sent a protest letter to the Minister of Agriculture complaining that granaries were overflowing due to the imports, according to Polish media.
The bans present a thorny problem for the European Commission which is keen to support Ukraine and to open markets to its produce. That in turn helps reduce the subsidies paid to Kyiv’s government by European taxpayers. But while Central and Eastern Europe has been willing to house millions of Ukrainian refugees and send substantial amounts of military and other support, the goodwill on agricultural produce has now evaporated.
Exports of agricultural products from Ukraine to the EU jumped in 2022 to $12.9bn from $7.7bn the previous year, according to Statista.
Poland’s right-wing ruling party faces a difficult October parliamentary election. It is under attack from the radical right, while its failure to shield farmers threatens its rural support base. Former minister of agriculture Henryk Kowalczyk stepped down from his post at the beginning of April amid protests over the grain import issue and as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited the country.
Agricultural groups have argued that Ukraine enjoys a competitive advantage because it has no need to follow strict EU regulations. The shipments amount to unfair competition, they say.
And it’s not just grain. Poultry imports to Poland from Ukraine rose by 93% percent from early 2022 to early 2023, according to the country’s Union of Producers and Meat Industry Employers. “The price level they offer is impossible to achieve for any Polish and EU producer,” said vice president Jarosław Krzyżanowski.
Czech farmers have argued that their Ukrainian counterparts barely benefit from the exports, with the main profits being diverted to the merchants, who give them only a fraction of the price.
Poland’s farmers have denied the protests reflect wider issues and say they continue to support Ukraine’s fight for existence against the Russian invader. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of Poland’s conservative ruling Law and Justice party also emphasized that support for Ukraine would not wane and that Poland continues to be “a friend and an ally of Ukraine.”
Aliide Naylor is the author of ‘The Shadow in the East’ (Bloomsbury, 2020). She lived in Russia for several years and is now based between London and the Baltic states, working as a journalist, editor, and translator.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.