WARSAW, Poland — Slovakia became the third European Union country to ban food imports from Ukraine on Monday, deepening the challenge facing the bloc as it helps Ukraine transport its grain to world markets.
Slovakia followed Poland and Hungary in announcing on Saturday that they would ban Ukrainian food imports until June 30. This was done in response to the growing anger of farmers, who say that the abundance of grain in their countries is causing them economic hardship.
The EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, manages trade on behalf of the 27 member states and opposes unilateral or uncoordinated measures.
At a briefing in Brussels, two spokesmen thanked Poland and other central European countries for their support for Ukraine, but said a solution must be found that respects the EU legal framework.
“We are facing a war, right? And this war obviously has consequences for farmers and more generally for the population in Ukraine, the European Union and its member states,” said chief spokesman Eric Mamer.
He acknowledged that Poland and other countries are “doing everything to help Ukraine,” adding: “So it’s not about sanctions. This is about finding solutions based on EU law that serve the interests of Ukrainians and the EU at the same time.
Five EU countries neighboring Ukraine asked the EU to urgently deal with the issue of Ukrainian food. Poland, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia argue that they cannot allow their own farmers to bear the costs of disruptions to their markets for Ukrainian grain and other agricultural products.
Bulgaria is reportedly considering a similar ban. The Czech Republic says it has no plans to do so.
Meanwhile, a delegation of Ukrainian officials visited Warsaw on Monday to hold government consultations on the matter. Poland is facing elections in the fall, and farmers’ groups have been putting pressure on the government with frequent protests lately.
According to Agriculture Minister István Nagy, the surge of Ukrainian products on European markets made it “impossible” for Hungarian farmers to maintain their competitiveness.
Nagy also said that Ukraine’s low production costs due to practices not allowed in EU countries allowed Ukraine to export large quantities of poultry, eggs and honey to the European market, reducing costs to unsustainable levels.
The Slovak Ministry of Agriculture announced last week that 1,500 tons of grain from Ukraine had been tested at a Slovakian mill and found to contain a pesticide banned in the EU. As a result, Slovak authorities decided to test all Ukrainian grain in the country and temporarily banned its processing.
The ban also affects the import of grain and other foodstuffs, including sugar, hops, flax, hemp, fruit and vegetables and their products, grapes, honey and honey products. Slovak Agriculture Minister Samuel Vlcan said the ban, which came into force on Tuesday, will remain in place until further notice and does not apply to transit.
Both Ukraine and Russia are major global suppliers of wheat, barley, sunflower oil and other affordable food commodities that developing countries depend on. The war disrupted supplies to Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia, where people were already starving, and plunged millions more into poverty or food insecurity.
After Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it became too dangerous for ships to navigate the Black Sea, disrupting the flow of large ships carrying food to distant markets. Shipments continued under an agreement brokered by the United Nations and Turkey.
The EU responded to the crisis by removing tariffs and other trade tariffs on Ukraine to help keep its economy afloat. This helped divert Ukraine’s grain flow to Africa and the Middle East through Europe – but much of that food remained in neighboring countries, causing large losses to local farmers.
The EU measures expire in June, but the EU is expected to renew them.
Ukraine’s EU neighbors – with the exception of Hungary – are Ukraine’s allies who support their neighbor’s future EU membership.
However, the EU’s decision to ban tariffs on Ukrainian goods against its neighbor due to the Russian invasion points to the challenges of integrating a huge food producer with other members of the bloc.
Economist Ian Mitchell, co-director of the Center for Global Development’s Europe program in London, said it was unusual for EU member states to “take unilateral trade action”.
Mitchell, who specializes in agriculture and trade, argued that the move would undermine EU solidarity and show the power of farmers’ voices in politics. He characterized this as an attempt to get the EU to provide more support to agriculture, even though aid is already generous for farmers in Eastern and Central Europe.
“If you’re a consumer in Hungary, Slovakia or Poland, you’re effectively guaranteed by the government that you’re going to pay a higher price for your food,” Mitchell said. “The balance of the food lobby is so strong that even in a cost of living crisis, it can get the government to do this.”
The bans come as Russia threatens to withdraw from the Black Sea agreement. Moscow complains that a special agreement facilitating Russian food and fertilizer exports has not worked amid Western sanctions.
Global food commodity prices hit record highs after the invasion of Ukraine and have been falling ever since, but food is still expensive for people in many places due to factors such as droughts, trade restrictions and the high cost of buying imported food paid for in dollars. the currencies of some emerging economies are weakening.
Courtney Bonnell in London, Lorne Cook in Brussels, Justin Spike in Budapest and Karel Janicek in Prague contributed to this report.