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Russia’s Suspension of the Black Sea Grain Initiative Exposes Cracks in EU Solidarity

Maša Ocvirk Wilson Center Headshot

Russia recently suspended its participation in the Black Sea Grain Initiative—the crucial UN agreement enabling continued exports of Ukrainian grain via the Black Sea. The article examines how this decision affects future EU support for Ukraine and how it exposes broader issues of integrating Ukraine as a full-fledged member state in to the EU.

Grain deal between Ukraine and the EU
In May, the EU imposed temporary import limits for Ukrainian grain in Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia until September 15, 2023.

A few weeks ago, Russia announced it is suspending its participation in the Black Sea Grain Initiative—the crucial UN agreement enabling continued exports of Ukrainian grain via the Black Sea. This announcement renewed concerns about the stability of global food supply chains, as many countries in Asia and Africa rely on Ukrainian grain. For Europe, it also raised fears of additional pressure on the solidarity lanes—alternative routes established to facilitate transit of Ukrainian grain through the EU—and the impact on member states’ agricultural markets. With EU member states bordering Ukraine proposing to prolong the measures limiting Ukrainian grain imports (adopted in May this year), how does Russia’s abrogation of the Black Sea Grain Initiative affect the EU’s unity to support Ukraine for “as long as it takes”?  

Before the Russian invasion, 90 percent of Ukrainian grain went through its Black Sea ports. Since then, Russia has been actively targeting these key trade routes, severely constraining Ukraine’s export capabilities. To help Ukraine’s wartime economy the EU implemented trade benefits that eliminated all import tariffs on Ukrainian goods, including agricultural products. This was first and foremost a crucial economic lifeline for Ukraine, but secondly a radical step for the EU, taking into consideration the usually more protectionist approach for its agricultural sector. The EU also established ‘solidarity lanes’—alternative logistic routes by land and EU ports to help Ukraine continue exporting agricultural goods despite the war. Since May 2022 over 45 million tons of grain, oilseed, and other agricultural products have been exported via the EU solidarity lanes. In comparison, as of July 2023, around 33 million tons of grain has been exported under the Black Sea Grain Initiative—the agreement brokered by the UN and Türkiye that includes Russia’s participation.  

However, this support from the EU has had an impact on the agricultural markets of member states bordering Ukraine. The sudden pressure on logistical capabilities to transport large amounts of grain created bottlenecks. This resulted in grain intended for external markets remaining in these border countries, lowering the prices and the demand for domestic products. In March, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia imposed unilateral bans on imports from Ukraine to curtail this influx of grain and protect their local farmers.  

Adina Vălean, European Commissioner for Transport, at a press conference on the establishment of
On May 12, 2022 the European Commission presented an action plan to establish ‘Solidarity Lanes' to ensure continued export of Ukrainian grain, as well as import goods, from humanitarian aid to animal feed and fertilizers, needed in Ukraine.

Agriculture is considered the ‘third rail’ of politics in many European countries, and the unintended consequences of supporting Ukraine have resulted in a bitter debate within the EU. The European Commission initially described the unilateral measures taken by countries bordering Ukraine as unacceptable, as trade policy is an exclusive competence of the EU. Similarly, several member states accused the bordering countries of double standards—claiming to support Ukraine, while adopting protectionist measures at the expense of a vital economic lifeline for Ukraine’s grain exports. To both mitigate the situation and continue supporting Ukraine, the European Commission introduced temporary import limits for Ukrainian grain in the five member states bordering Ukraine and provided financial support for farmers and logistical capabilities to continue the transit to other EU member states or third countries. These exceptional measures were initially in place until June 5, although they were later prolonged to September 15.  

After Russia pulled out of the Black Sea Grain Initiative in July, tensions in the region rose again. Russia has intensified its attacks on Ukrainian grain warehouses and Ukraine has been retaliating by attacking Russian vessels in the Black Sea. Concerned about another surge of Ukrainian grain into their markets, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia, in a joint letter to the Commission, requested an extension of preventative measures until the end of the year. This has received backlash from Ukraine as well as several EU member states. The latter's fears are twofold: firstly, the disruptive effects this would continue having on the EU internal market; and secondly, that this would aid Russia’s efforts to push Ukraine out of the world grain market, especially after the recent Russia-Africa Summit, where President Putin pledged free supplies of grain to African countries.  

Talks on another extension of measures are expected to continue in September and all five countries are threatening to impose new unilateral measures if there is no agreement. For Poland and Slovakia, the stakes are high due to parliamentary elections in the fall. In both countries, the costs of supporting Ukraine have been exploited by pro-Russia leaning parties. In Poland, farmers represent an important voting block for the leading Law and Justice party; however, in recent polls the Confederation alliance, with a history of anti-Ukrainian rhetoric, is projected to receive enough seats to have a decisive role in forming the new government. Similar fears have been raised in Slovakia, where the former Prime Minister Robert Fico—a pro-Russia politician—is leading in the polls. With the EU expecting to adopt the new Ukraine Facility this fall, these potential new governments could present an obstacle for developing new EU efforts to support Ukraine 

Agriculture is considered the ‘third rail’ of politics in many European countries, and the unintended consequences of supporting Ukraine have resulted in a bitter debate within the EU.

This latest suspension of the Grain Initiative by Russia will therefore put a greater burden on EU’s continued support of Ukraine. The EU will need to strike a balance between addressing the concerns of the farmers and continuing to facilitate Ukrainian grain exports. So far it has been able to mitigate internal market disruptions from the influx of Ukrainian grain and compensate affected farmers with funds from the Common Agricultural Policy Crisis Reserve. However, according to the Spanish Presidency of the Council of the EU, these funds for 2023 are already depleted. This is on top of the challenges concerning future financial support for Ukraine’s recovery and reconstruction, for which the EU is expected to revise its Multiannual Financial Framework in order to provide stable funding for Ukraine as well as its own green and digital transition. Without this stable funding and budget support in place, the EU will be unable to sustain its level of support for Ukraine. 

This ongoing discussion also exposes broader issues of Ukraine’s integration into the EU. There have been calls for the EU to consider its capacity to integrate a country the size of Ukraine into the union. Ukraine’s membership, given its status as the breadbasket of Europe, would impact the functioning of the single market, the deliverables of the Common Agricultural Policy, and require a fundamental rebalance of the agricultural policy across the bloc. The current challenges of supporting Ukraine, including maintaining its capabilities to export grain, therefore serve as a great learning moment for the EU – as well as a prelude what to expect when the bloc welcomes Ukraine as a full-fledged member state.  

About the Author

Maša Ocvirk Wilson Center Headshot

Masa Ocvirk

Program Coordinator, Global Europe Program
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Global Europe Program

The Global Europe Program is focused on Europe’s capabilities, and how it engages on critical global issues.  We investigate European approaches to critical global issues. We examine Europe’s relations with Russia and Eurasia, China and the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. Our initiatives include “Ukraine in Europe” – an examination of what it will take to make Ukraine’s European future a reality.  But we also examine the role of NATO, the European Union and the OSCE, Europe’s energy security, transatlantic trade disputes, and challenges to democracy. The Global Europe Program’s staff, scholars-in-residence, and Global Fellows participate in seminars, policy study groups, and international conferences to provide analytical recommendations to policy makers and the media.  Read more