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EU Divisions Over Ukraine Grain Exports Set Stage for Bigger EU Battles

The past year has lifted Poland’s image in the European Union from rule-of-law defier to leading Ukraine champion, welcoming more than a million refugees since Russia’s invasion and providing billions of dollars in military aid to neighboring Kyiv.

But Poland’s newly acquired luster is fast fading, as Warsaw and four other neighboring countries balk at another Ukraine export — millions of tons of grain that have now lost maritime transport routes since Russia’s pullout this month from the year-old Black Sea Grain Initiative.

The countries, including Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria, argue that Ukrainian cereals are flooding local markets and undercutting local harvests.

Analysts say money and politics are at stake — not just millions of dollars in EU compensation for farmers from those countries but also key rural votes that governments in Poland and Slovakia are courting ahead of fall legislative elections.

FILE - An excavator loads grain into a cargo ship at a grain port in Izmail, Ukraine, on April 26, 2023.

FILE – An excavator loads grain into a cargo ship at a grain port in Izmail, Ukraine, on April 26, 2023.

The grain standoff that is dividing the 27-member bloc — which has largely pulled together since Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine — may also carry longer-term implications for the EU.

Looming on the horizon, although with no fixed date, is Ukraine’s hoped-for membership in the bloc, which may divert millions of dollars of funds from Brussels that its eastern EU neighbors currently enjoy.

“What we’re seeing now is the Eastern European countries coming to terms with the economic implications of their political and military support for Ukraine,” said Jacob Kirkegaard, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Brussels and the Peterson Institute for International Relations in Washington.

With Kyiv now an EU candidate, “they’re going to have to choose,” Kirkegaard said. “Are they really interested in also supporting Ukraine in the long run? We’re seeing a part of that process playing out now.”

EU agricultural ministers met Tuesday in Brussels to look at ways to expand European overland rail and road “solidarity routes” set up last year to export Ukrainian grain to account for the cutoff of Black Sea routes.

The European Commission is also considering a separate proposal by Lithuania to have the grain exported through five Baltic sea ports.

Experts have raised questions about whether Europe has the capacity to re-export the extra Ukrainian grain tonnage that previously traveled through the Black Sea. That includes potential problems harmonizing rail gauges — defining the distance between the two rails of the tracks — among member states.

Tuesday’s meeting reached no agreement on the fate of a temporary deal the EU struck with Poland and four other Eastern European countries in May. That allowed Ukrainian grain shipments to pass through their territories but banned local sale and storage.

Brussels also offered roughly $110 million in compensation for farmers in those countries who were reeling from the cheaper competition.

‘Not European’

The five countries now want the deal — which expires in mid-September — expanded until year’s end.

“I hope that this will be extended,” Polish Agricultural Minister Robert Telus told media website Euractiv. “But if it is not, Poland will still have to tackle the issue, and we have demonstrated we can do that.”

The commission says it will respond before the September deadline. But many other EU members oppose any extension.

“What is not possible is to take the money from Brussels as compensation for the burden, but at the same time close the border to Ukraine,” said German Agriculture Minister Cem Ozdemir.

That would undermine EU solidarity for Ukraine, he said, adding, “The only one who is happy is [Russian President] Vladimir Putin.”

FILE - A view through a fence shows flags of Poland and European Union outside the Polish embassy in Moscow, Russia, March 29, 2018.

FILE – A view through a fence shows flags of Poland and European Union outside the Polish embassy in Moscow, Russia, March 29, 2018.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has criticized the push to extend the restrictions on Ukrainian grain exports, calling them “unacceptable” and “not European” during his evening address Tuesday — echoing remarks made by other critics in recent weeks.

For its part, France’s Liberation newspaper has claimed Warsaw is using “pirate methods” that threaten the bloc’s unity against Russia, “and puts into peril the rest of the economy of Ukraine that it claims to support.”

Poland, along with Hungary, has faced plenty of other EU criticism over the years — from flouting rule-of-law principles to the bloc’s asylum and migration rules. Earlier this month, the EU Commission cited underwhelming progress by both on judicial reforms that are conditioned to its release of millions of dollars in funds.

But for Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party, the need to shore up its key rural base is most immediately at stake, observers say, ahead of this fall’s legislative vote.

“Clearly, it’s an electoral strategy of the Polish government,” Kirkegaard said of Warsaw’s push to extend the Ukrainian grain import restrictions. “Are they going to back down? Probably not. Will the rest of the EU accept that? No.”

The prospect of a stable Ukraine one day joining the bloc also weighs into the calculations of Poland and the other four Eastern European countries, he said. While Kyiv’s membership would offer an extra bulwark against Russia, it would likely divert millions of dollars in EU agricultural and other funds that many nations enjoy today.

With discussions over the next 2027 EU budget looming, “they’re putting their markers down,” Kirkegaard said. “They’re positioning themselves for what is going to be a huge fight.”

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