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Germany has led condemnation of Poland, Hungary and Slovakia’s unilateral curbs on grain imports from Ukraine, accusing the countries of cherry-picking EU policies and putting their own interests over Ukraine.
The remarks by Cem Ozdemir, the German food and agriculture minister, underscored the wider ramifications of the Ukrainian grain dispute, which has posed the biggest challenge in decades to Brussels’ authority over EU trade.
The European Commission lifted a ban on imports of four Ukrainian grains, including wheat and maize, on Friday on the condition that Kyiv agreed to prevent surges of grain into neighbouring EU countries.
In the hours that followed Poland, Slovakia and Hungary applied their own curbs, flouting EU rules in order to protect farmers from an alleged glut of Ukrainian products. Poland and Slovakia are both holding elections within weeks.
Ozdemir said the commission had made the “right decision” to lift the ban and accused the eastern European countries of “part-time solidarity” with Ukraine. “When it suits you, you are in solidarity and when it doesn’t suit you, you are not,” he said.
France and Spain also criticised the move as in breach of core EU rules, which has granted the commission oversight of common trade policy since the 1970s.
Marc Fesneau, the French agricultural minister, said the unilateral measures “call into question the single market and the common market very deeply”. Luis Planas, Spain’s agriculture minister, suggested the measures were unlawful but said it was “for the commission to judge”.
Ukraine has said it will take Poland, Slovakia and Hungary to the WTO and could retaliate with its own trade curbs against products from the three countries.
The unilateral bans put the commission in an awkward position as it is responsible for acting as the bloc’s trade negotiator. If Ukraine pursues its WTO action, Brussels could face having to defend the three countries against Kyiv.
The commission has so far declined to elaborate on whether it would take formal legal action against the three renegade countries, insisting it was attempting to find a compromise. Poland led a group that first introduced the import bans earlier this year, which the commission later adopted as an EU-wide measure to deal with a temporary surge in supply.
A commission spokesperson said that Brussels was “analysing the measures” being adopted and was focused “on making the system work”.
Brussels lifted tariffs on imports of Ukrainian grain shortly after Russia’s full-scale invasion as a way to boost Ukraine’s economy. It has also poured millions of euros into improving infrastructure along rail and river corridors to try and get grain to ports in other EU countries after Moscow pulled out of a scheme to allow exports via the Black Sea.
Hungary on Friday said it would continue to curb Ukrainian grain imports and added dozens of food groups including frozen and fresh beef, pork, lamb, goat, honey and wine.
“If cheap Ukrainian imports flood the markets of neighbouring EU member states . . . we can’t watch this idly,” Hungarian farm minister István Nagy said on Facebook on Saturday.
Poland has also added certain seeds and Ukrainian flour to the four grains embargoed by the original EU ban.
The issue has become a particularly heated topic in Poland ahead of the national elections in October. Polish minister of agriculture Robert Telus said in an interview with PAP news agency last week that Ukraine should not be allowed to accede to the bloc unless it met certain conditions for agricultural exports.