The European Union has criticized bans on imports of Ukrainian grain and other foods declared by Poland and Hungary over the weekend, saying the unilateral moves were “unacceptable.”
The European Union, of which Poland and Hungary are member states, lifted tariffs on Ukrainian grain last year to help transport it to the rest of the world, but its exports have led to a glut of produce in Europe. As a result, farmers in Poland, Hungary and other nations have seen their incomes plummet.
Hungary’s agriculture minister said on Saturday that “in the absence of meaningful E.U. measures,” his country would follow Poland in restricting Ukrainian grain imports until the end of June, according to Hungarian media reports. The announcement came after Warsaw reached a deal with Kyiv on Friday to strictly limit and, for a time, halt Ukrainian grain deliveries to Poland.
That deal was expected to affect Ukrainian grain, wheat, corn and some other produce, but on Saturday, Poland expanded it to include dozens of other types of food. Poland’s development and technology minister, Waldemar Buda, said in a tweet on Sunday that the measure would also prevent the transit of Ukrainian products through Poland.
However, a spokesperson for the European Commission, the E.U.’s executive arm, said in an emailed statement that such a trade policy is a matter of “E.U. exclusive competence,” meaning that only the bloc could adopt legally binding decisions. “Unilateral actions are not acceptable,” the statement said.
There had been signs in recent weeks that Ukraine’s food exports were becoming a sore point in relations with Poland, one of its staunchest allies through the war.
Late last month, the prime ministers of Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Slovakia called on the E.U. to take steps to curb the influx of Ukrainian produce that had been pushing down prices and said Europe should consider reinstating tariffs.
Ukraine’s agriculture minister, Mykola Solskyi, said on Saturday that Kyiv understood that its agricultural exports represented “tough competition” for other countries, but added: “The Ukrainian farmer is in the most difficult situation.” Mr. Solskyi was expected to travel to Poland on Monday to continue talks on the issue.
Facing a general election later this year and worried that discontent among farmers could erode support among its predominantly conservative, rural base, Poland’s governing Law and Justice party has made solving the grain issue a priority. Poland’s new agriculture minister, Robert Telus, whose predecessor resigned during a state visit to Poland earlier this month by President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, said at a party convention on Saturday that halting grain deliveries would act as a “shield” for Polish farmers.
The announcements from Hungary and Poland came as Russia has been voicing doubts about extending the Black Sea grain deal, which was brokered by the United Nations and Turkey last year and is scheduled to expire in the next few weeks. The agreement, which allows wartime grain shipments to leave Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, has been crucial for alleviating global food shortages and limiting price increases.
The Black Sea deal was renewed in March but the U.N. did not say how long it would last. Russia at the time said it was valid through May 18. Russia has expressed dissatisfaction with the deal for months because of sanctions that have hindered its own food and fertilizer exports. The agreement would become even more vital if Ukraine could not ship grain and foodstuffs over land routes in Eastern Europe, through Poland and Hungary.
On the battlefield in Ukraine over the weekend, the Russian assault remained focused on the eastern front near the towns of Lyman and Bakhmut, according to a statement from the Ukrainian Army’s general staff on Sunday. “The battles for the city of Bakhmut do not stop,” the statement said.
The battle for the ruined eastern city of Bakhmut has been grinding on for months and has claimed many lives on both sides, though the toll so far has likely been much higher for Russia’s forces.
Early on Saturday, Russia’s Defense Ministry claimed that the Wagner mercenary force had taken control of two areas on the northern and southern outskirts of Bakhmut. The remaining Ukrainian forces in the city, the Russian ministry said on the Telegram messaging app, were “retreating and deliberately destroying the city’s infrastructure and residential buildings to slow down the advance of Russian troops.”
It was not possible to immediately verify those claims.
As of late last week, Ukrainian soldiers were defending a shrinking half-circle of destroyed buildings in a western neighborhood of Bakhmut, only about 20 blocks wide in the 16-square-mile city.
Ukraine’s army is determined to hold out, even as allies have quietly questioned the rationale for sustaining significant casualties in a city that has been reduced to rubble. For both sides, the city has taken on outsized symbolic significance, military analysts have said.