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Grain Dance: What Poland Wants in Return for Its Solidarity With Ukraine

Warsaw insists it will act alone if Brussels fails to extend import restrictions on Ukrainian agricultural products.

Warsaw’s solidarity with Kyiv knows no bounds — well almost. It just comes down to money.

More than a year after the EU set up overland “solidarity lanes” to help get millions of tons of stranded agricultural products — Kyiv’s main export — out of Ukraine, Warsaw is threatening to close its own border for the second time unless Brussels extends temporary restrictions and comes up with cash to ensure that none of the stuff gets stuck in Poland.

The unilateral move would violate the EU’s common trade rules but Warsaw argues it is necessary because Ukrainian products — now blocked once again by Russia from their traditional Black Sea export route — are undercutting Polish farmers.

“The interests of our farmers are paramount for us,” Polish Agriculture Minister Robert Telus told reporters after a meeting of EU farm ministers in Brussels Tuesday. “Our decisions are not against anyone; they are first and foremost for our farmers.”

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and blockade of its Black Sea ports last year, the EU’s eastern countries — Poland, Romania, and to a lesser extent Bulgaria, Hungary, and Slovakia — found themselves flooded with unprecedented volumes of Ukrainian grain.

The reasons were surprisingly simple: Despite the war, grain trading is still market-driven, and as with any commodity, the cheaper stuff finds buyers. Ukrainian grain is high quality and cheap — but only if it’s transported by sea or relatively short distances inland.

When it came to grain entering Poland, most of it only made it as far as the eastern region bordering Ukraine.

Telus accused multinational traders of bringing Ukrainian grain across the border and selling it off to local intermediaries such as mills and feed manufacturers. Polish farmers, in turn, saw demand for their own produce dwindle.

Question of solidarity

Allies backing Poland and the four other countries, however, are few and far between.

“This temporary ban was absolutely necessary because these countries would not withstand the pressure,” said Janusz Wojciechowski, Poland’s EU farm commissioner.

Others see things differently.

Top Ukrainian officials have criticized the restrictions, with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy saying any extension of the restrictions is “absolutely unacceptable and outright non-European.”

“Our position is clear: blocking [Ukrainian] exports by land after September 15, when the relevant restrictions expire, is unacceptable in any form,” Zelenskyy said in a post on Telegram on Monday night.

Zelenskyy’s exasperation followed a week in which Russian President Vladimir Putin terminated the Black Sea Grain Initiative, reimposed a maritime blockade and launched a series of air strikes on Ukraine’s coastal ports. Under the U.N.-brokered grain deal, Ukraine exported 33 million metric tons of grain to world markets over the past year. Now, as the harvest is being brought in, that route is shut.

Many EU countries, including France, Germany and Spain, back Ukraine’s stance. While recognizing Ukrainian grain has put pressure on some EU farmers, they say the trade restrictions undermine the integrity of the bloc’s internal market and its efforts to support Ukraine.

“This is not a wish-fulfillment program, where you pick and choose what you like, take money from Brussels, but at the same time close the border,” said German Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir, adding the only actor benefiting from Poland’s actions is Russia as it looks to squeeze Ukraine out of the global grain market.

The current restrictions are set to expire on September 15 — a month before Poland goes to the polls to elect a new government.

With farmers a key constituency, the incumbent right-wing government is adamant it will not allow Ukrainian grain to be imported onto its territory. “We will definitely not allow that to happen,” Telus said.

All about the money

Brussels hasn’t taken a stance on the Polish threat, choosing instead to facilitate close-door negotiations between the five EU countries and Ukraine.

With the Commission dithering, Lithuania proposed shifting Ukrainian grain exports through Poland to its Baltic port of Klaipėda and four other ports in Estonia and Latvia.

But every mile adds to the cost of transport, making Ukrainian produce less competitive on the global market. Then there are the logistical costs of expanding rail and storage capacity, and no one — least of all Warsaw — wants to foot a bill that could run into hundreds of millions of euros.

Telus said that if Brussels or other EU countries wanted to subsidize grain transport through Poland, they were welcome to do so.

“The European Commission always has funding for so many different things, so it can also find money to subsidize transportation,” he said. “Poland is a big supporter of helping Ukraine — I don’t think anyone doubts that. But this support should be spread across all countries, not just Poland and [other] border countries.”

The big question looming over Telus back home is who’s actually been importing Ukrainian grain into Poland — with rumors swirling that senior Polish government officials were encouraging companies to take advantage of the lower prices and bring the stuff into the country. 

Upon taking office in April, Telus said he would publish a list of companies.

He has yet to do so, fueling concerns that the list could embarrass the ruling camp ahead of the election.

Jan Maria Jackowski, a member of the Polish Senate, last week called on Telus to keep his promise. “The disclosure of this list is the key to understanding this situation,” he said. “If it is as the emerging comments suggest, then we are dealing with one of the biggest scandals we have had in Poland in recent years.”

Source: Politico