‘Was that man drunk?’ Ukraine's response to grain embargo sparks EU anger

Ukrainian trade representative Taras Kachka’s announcement that Kyiv would sue Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia for unilateral bans on Ukrainian agricultural products has caused irritation in the European Union, Politico reports.

For in-depth analysis and longer stories, follow us on LinkedIn

“Was that man drunk?” an EU envoy told Politico of Mr Kachka’s announcement.

The Ukrainian official said that EU members were apparently “not ready for this kind of clear language” from Kyiv.

The tensions erupted on Friday night, after the European commission decided to allow Ukrainian grain sales across the EU. That ended restrictions on grain imports which five eastern EU member countries had originally sought, and won, in the spring, to protect their own domestic farmers from competition. 

Within hours, Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia announced their own unilateral bans on Ukrainian grain — spurning the EU commission, violating the rules of the EU single market, and enraging fellow EU governments.

German agriculture minister Cem Özdemir accused the three EU members of “part-time solidarity”. “When it suits you, you are in solidarity and when it doesn’t suit you, you are not,” Mr Özdemir said on Monday before a meeting of EU farm ministers.

One EU diplomat told Politico that the unilateral move proves that winning votes counts for more than economic concerns in Poland, which is in the middle of a high-stakes campaign ahead of next month’s election.

“It’s not about economic concerns anymore, but about national political goals. We already knew that, but now it’s out in the open and clear to everyone,” the diplomat said.

For the EU commission, Friday's decision was a lose-lose situation, said another EU diplomat. It was either giving in to Polish pressure or giving the Polish ruling party a free hand.

“It's a really bad look for everyone, and the [EU] commission didn't help by not responding more sternly to a flagrant breach of trade rules. Now they're stuck in quicksand,” the diplomat said ahead of Friday’s decision.

Kyiv’s decision to launch legal action at the WTO puts Brussels in a bind since normally, the EU represents its member countries at the WTO, as trade is an exclusive policy competence of the Commission.

Admitting Ukraine to the EU’s single market would make Ukraine the biggest beneficiary of the EU’s agricultural subsidies, forcing an overhaul of the Common Agricultural Policy. Then there are bigger questions including over the costs of reconstruction, regional aid and the need to reform the EU’s internal processes. 

“Grain is our first test,” an EU official told Politico.

Ukraine on Monday evening filed lawsuits at the World Trade Organization against Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary, after they banned the import of Ukrainian agricultural products.