SOFIA — The Bulgarian government on September 13 said it favors lifting the ban on Ukrainian grain imports in return for additional compensation for its farmers, but Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia insist that the current ban be extended by the European Commission and threatened to unilaterally take action if their demands are not met.
Bulgaria and the four other regional countries have sought to protect their own agricultural sectors in the face of a flood of products from Ukraine over the past 18 months, blaming the imports for the slump in prices on local markets.
Russia’s war against Kyiv and the disruption of Ukrainian grain exports through the Black Sea have resulted in the European Union becoming a major transit route and export destination for Ukrainian grain.
In May, the European Commission agreed to allow Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia to ban domestic sales of Ukrainian wheat, maize, rapeseed, and sunflower seeds, while permitting transit of such cargoes for export elsewhere.
The restrictions are due to expire on September 15, but Hungary and Poland asked the commission to extend them.
Bulgaria joined in seeking the ban on Ukrainian products, but a subsequent change in government has resulted in a shift in that position.
Even within Bulgaria, the viewpoint is not unanimous. Agriculture Minister Kiril Vatev on September 12 said his office would seek to extend the ban, warning of “heavy protests” should it be lifted.
A Bulgarian parliamentary committee on September 12 adopted a draft decision for Sofia to lift the ban after September 15. The final decision — expected to be approval — is to be taken in the plenary session of parliament, likely on September 14.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Nikolay Denkov on September 13 said his government supports waiving the ban as it would reduce the prices of basic foods.
“Imports will stimulate competition in the market. It will in turn lead to a reduction in the prices of basic food products and inflation, which is one of the main priorities of the cabinet,” Denkov said.
He added that his government will call for the resumption of imports in exchange for additional compensation for Bulgarian farmers to be provided by the European Commission.
Should Sofia lift its ban, it would run counter to policies of some of its regional counterparts.
“If there is no decision on the extension of the existing moratorium by Brussels, then we will take national measures individually,” Hungarian Minister of Agriculture Istvan Nagy said in a Facebook post on September 13.
Poland has repeatedly said it will unilaterally continue its ban should the European Commission not extend it.
“Regardless of the [European] Commission’s further decision, we will not open the border to Ukrainian grain after that date,” a statement said on September 12, adding that “the interests of the Polish countryside are most important.”
Poland is a major supplier of military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine and hosts some 1 million Ukrainian refugees. But the grain issue is particularly sensitive to the government in Warsaw as the country is holding elections next month.
Poland’s EU Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski said on September 12 that he is making efforts to have the embargo extended, adding that it was “effective, efficient, and stabilizing the markets in the five member states.”
Wojciechowski is Poland’s former agriculture minister.
Romania’s Agriculture Ministry said it would decide on its next move following the commission’s decision but added that if the ban is not extended, “we have solutions to enforce that will protect our farmers.”
Ukraine warned it could seek international arbitration over restrictions on its grain exports after Poland said it would continue to block domestic imports of Ukrainian grain.
“We have no intention of harming Polish farmers. We greatly appreciate the support of the Polish people and Polish families,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said on September 12 in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter.
“But in the case of a violation of trade law in the interests of political populism before elections, Ukraine will be forced to turn to WTO (World Trade Organization) arbitration,” he added.
Ukraine has become entirely dependent on alternative European Union routes for its grain exports after Russia in July abandoned a deal that had allowed Ukrainian grains to be shipped via its Black Sea ports.
Before the war, Eastern European countries were not among the main importers of Ukrainian grain, but the export of Ukrainian grains and oilseeds to Poland and Romania rose sharply last year, Ukrainian customs data showed.