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“Embargo war” on Ukrainian produce intensifies ahead of elections in Poland and Slovakia, experts say

In July, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, and Slovakia reached a mutual agreement, prohibiting the import of Ukrainian grain into these nations but permitting its transit to others. The European Commission approved this arrangement, replacing the unilateral limitations imposed by Bulgaria, Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary. These measures were deemed necessary to protect the sales of locally produced grain products, as local producers actively protested against the price reduction caused by the influx of cheap Ukrainian grain.

On September 15, the arrangement was set to expire. However, the Polish government issued a resolution urging the European Commission to prolong the ban. If not, Poland threatened to impose their own embargo on Ukrainian grain.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denis Shmyhal, on the other hand, announced Ukraine's intention to appeal to WTO arbitration due to violations of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade Norms. He labeled the decision as “pre-election populism.” Indeed, parliamentary elections are scheduled in Poland on October 15, during which the ruling party, Law and Justice, aims to appeal to a broad base of voters.

The Polish authorities stood firm and implemented an indefinite embargo on the import of Ukrainian grain. Moreover, they warned that if the issue remains unresolved, Poland may oppose Ukraine's EU accession. In response, Ukraine declared that it would have to resort to countermeasures, including both WTO arbitration and a ban on the import of Polish fruits and vegetables. The Polish authorities took it a step further—talks about reducing aid to Ukrainian refugees are already circulating. Polish President Andrzej Duda drew a comparison, likening Ukraine to a “drowning person who might pull down the rescuer,” alluding, of course, to the grain predicament.

The General Director of the Ukrainian Agricultural Confederation, Pavel Koval, is confident that Poland's current rhetoric is likely tied to internal political processes, particularly with upcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for October 15:

“I believe that this tension is triggered by internal political processes. The current authorities need to swiftly, successfully, and transparently navigate the elections to form an appropriate coalition. Meanwhile, we need to exercise patience.”

According to Koval, initially, Ukraine was devising an export scheme based on mutually agreed positions:

“We provide these countries with information about the volumes and quality we intend to supply to their consumers within specific timelines. They assess the economic, logistical, and sometimes political feasibility of this. Then, approval is given, and we commence deliveries.
As I understand it, this was one of the scenarios being considered before filing a lawsuit with the WTO. Now, it will probably be somehow reviewed, and additional decisions will be made.
A proposition to remove the embargo is being discussed within the Bulgarian parliament. However, there is notable civil unrest, expressed through strikes, public demonstrations, and even the blockage of government facilities. Certain experts have pointed to a potential Russian influence in exacerbating discontent among Bulgarian farmers.
The overall situation with the grain corridor also plays a role, providing a backdrop for such unilateral statements from individual countries.”

At the same time, Koval refers to the countries advocating for the embargo on Ukrainian grain as “attractive but not critical” as a market for this product. He links the Ukrainian embargo on Polish vegetables to the lawsuit filed with the WTO:

“If you file a lawsuit, you need to continue your game. I believe Ukraine will identify other market segments that might say, 'Let's also ban the imports of dairy and meat products.'
Vegetables and apples were chosen because they are sensitive products for the Poles. These are perishable goods, and losing the Ukrainian market can be very unpleasant for them.
But, in my opinion, the Poles will still play out their pre-election move and won't backtrack. Even before September 15, they stated that despite the European Commission's decision, they would continue the embargo because they promised it to their voters. No one will change anything three weeks before the elections.
However, despite the increasing risk of a trade war every day, I believe that in the leadership of both countries, there will be individuals with common sense who can coordinate their positions.”

Wojciech Przybylski, a Polish political analyst and the chief editor of Visegrad Insight magazine, emphasizes that any embargo, including one from Ukraine, carries both economic and political consequences:

“In terms of economy it is important to a relatively small group of producers. Poland exports over EUR 4 billion's worth of fruits, vegetables, and their processed products yearly, and mostly to EU; only a fraction of that segment of production (5-10%) goes to Ukraine. It’s not a small deal and has been growing very quickly but not impacting Polish economy in case of turbulence overall because of diversification of export markets.”

Regarding the WTO arbitration, Przybylski points out that the ruling party does not rush to implement any court decisions that contradict its political agenda:

“So, I would not expect a resolution through an arbitrage. Politically, such action is likely to initiate pressures from allies who are worried about all transportation corridors and diplomatic negotiations would prove more useful. So, I don’t think that we are at risk of a major embargo war.”

The analyst reminds that the upcoming elections in Slovakia and Poland pose a serious risk to the continued political support for Ukraine from these countries, which were its staunch allies in the recent past:

“In simple terms, the nationalistic, isolationist agenda of the incumbent government in Poland, and the potential return of Mr. Fico in Slovakia can spell trouble for Ukraine’s ambitions in EU and NATO. We need cool heads until October 15, when the results will be known. It is clear that nationalistic and isolationist agenda would undercut Ukraine and change policies of a government that is elected on such ticket. If Poland sees a political change the risk of escalation will be greatly reduced. Should the ruling party win again they will have to accommodate their action to meet the electorate's expectations.
I would only emphasize that the choice that Poland faces is between European unity and isolationist position. Any Polish government will defend its interests, but they are differently perceived by the incumbent president, who sees enemies everywhere, and experienced politicians with a pro-European stance.”

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