‘This is a choice between bad and worse’: Why Ukrainian and EU farmers are disappointed by a new trade deal

The agreement will allow for the continued suspension of duties and quotas on Ukrainian agricultural goods sold to the EU through June 2025 – but with a caveat.
Farmers from Poland are driving their vehicles on the A2 autostrada (European route 30) towards the German-Polish border (Frankfurt/Oder) in February 2024. The protests by Polish farmers, which have been going on for weeks, are directed against the EU agricultural policy, but also against the import of cheap agricultural products from Ukraine.

By Julia Kaiser

Julia is a reporter at The Parliament Magazine

11 Apr 2024

European lawmakers reached a compromise agreement this week to extend a temporary free trade deal for Ukrainian agricultural exports through mid-2025 – part of an effort to bolster Ukraine’s flagging economy, while appeasing disgruntled EU farmers.

But the deal has no real winners.  

“This is a choice between bad and worse,” says Nazar Bobitski, director of the Ukrainian Agribusiness Club’s Brussels office.

The deal will allow for the continued suspension of duties and quotas on Ukrainian agricultural goods – a key economic driver for the country’s war-torn economy – sold to the EU through June of next year. The so-called Autonomous Trades Measures (ATM) were first introduced in 2022 following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that February.

EU member states had failed to reach a deal last month to extend the suspension of import duties amid fierce opposition to a draft agreement by the farming lobby, particularly in France and Poland.

This final agreement ultimately included a key caveat meant to cater to EU farmers who have argued they’re being squeezed by cheaper Ukrainian food products flooding the market – namely, what EU officials have called the ‘emergency brake.’ If imports of certain Ukrainian foodstuffs – poultry, eggs, sugar, oats, groats, maize and honey – were to exceed the average level of imports from the second half of 2021, all of 2022 and 2023, the EU would then reintroduce tariffs on those goods. That’s a slightly longer reference period compared to what negotiators had agreed last month.

The so-called emergency brake could result in a significant loss of export revenues for the Ukrainian economy, according to Bobitski. “Considering the current compromise, it would be at least between €500 million to almost €1 billion a year,” he estimates.

But he also admits: “We are desperate to the degree that we accept even this compromise.” Plus, he is aware that there is political unrest within the farming community. “We understand that these are the realities, and we are grateful anyway.”

Still, Bobitski says it's a relief that wheat imports – which have been a major concern for Eastern European farmers – were not included on the list of products that could be subject to tariffs. However, the European Commission has said it will monitor wheat imports and “use the tools at its disposal in the event of market disruptions.”

Farmers across the bloc have been protesting European agricultural policies for months. In addition to concerns over imports from Ukraine, the farming lobby has railed against the European Green Deal and free trade agreements such as Mercosur with Latin America.  

Meanwhile, for Arnold Puech d’Alissac, president of the World Farmers’ Organisation, the comprise reached this week is not sufficient. The French farmer is disappointed that wheat won’t be taxed and fears that imports of the staple from Ukraine will rise. The Commission’s vague promises to intervene are inadequate, he argues.

We are desperate to the degree that we accept even this compromise.

Yet, the extended reference period is a step that Puech d’Alissac welcomes, as it will reduce the amount of sugar entering the EU without tariffs. “It’s [the beginning] of progress, but it is not enough,” Puech d’Alissac says. 

In a joint statement from 9 April with other agricultural associations, Copa-Cogeca, an EU farmers lobbying group, called the approach a “half-response.” Copa-Cogeca President Christine Lambert says the association had advocated for a reference period that included the full year of 2021.

Lambert insists she is not opposed to trade liberalization for Ukrainian goods, but says EU farmers shouldn’t pay the price. “It's very difficult for the farmers to have on their shoulders the weight of solidarity. That is the reason why we would like to have much more support from the Commission,” she says.  

The EP's trade committee resoundingly passed the measure on Tuesday, sending it on for a vote by the full plenary later this month and subsequent review by the European Council. If approved, the legislation would come into effect at the beginning of June.

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