Polish ag minister resigns over EC policy on duty-free imports Ukraine

5 Apr 2023 | Eoin Hughes

Polish Agriculture Minister Henryk Kowalczyk resigned Wednesday, after criticizing the European Commission’s proposal to extend duty-free imports of grain from Ukraine.

Kowalczyk said that one point of the Polish government’s agreement with Polish farmers was to trigger the safeguard clause on duty-free and quota-free imports from Ukraine.

The Polish government brought this request to the Commission at a meeting on March 31, however the Commission has proposed to renew the duty-free and quota-free cereal imports for another year.

“Since it is very clear that the basic demand of farmers will not be met by the European Commission, I have made a decision and submitted my resignation from the post of Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development,” Kowalczyk said in a public statement.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2022 closed many Black Sea ports, prompting the EU to remove the duty on grain imports from Ukraine temporarily and to initiate “solidarity lanes” for the transport of grain from Ukraine via overland routes from May 2022.

The duty-free period was set to end at the beginning of June.

Farmers in neighboring EU states have recently begun to complain that cheap Ukrainian grain has filled up storage and pushed prices lower, and the governments of Poland, Bulgaria Slovakia, Romania and Hungary brought their complaints to a European Council meeting in January, asking for compensation for those farmers affected by the situation.

On March 20, the European Commission proposed a package of €56.3 million ($61.6 million) in financial aid to farmers in three affected countries - Poland, Bulgaria and Romania - a move that was later approved by the AGRIFISH Council at a meeting March 30.

But the package appeared to underwhelm critics, with farmers in Bulgaria reacting by staging strikes and protests during the country’s election campaign and calls for a reintroduction of the duty on Ukraine imports.

The European Commission remains firm in its position to support Ukraine, meanwhile, including through duty-free imports, while recognizing it needed to do more for local farmers.

"The Commission is fully committed to continue supporting Ukraine’s economy and boosting Ukrainian trade, both of which have been severely weakened by the Russian aggression,” the Commission said in a statement to Agricensus. 

"It goes without saying that the trade disruptions incurred by the Russian aggression should not take place at the expense of farmers from neighboring countries," it added, pointing to the measures already taken to address oversupply in border countries and promising a second support measure. 

Ukrainian authorities responded by noting the slow pace of inspections in the Bosporus under the Black Sea grain corridor initiative. 

"If the entire world community together succeeded in pressuring Russia to increase these inspections, we could send several times more ships per day, accordingly, the flow of road transportation of Ukrainian grain through European countries could decrease," they said. 

Market sources meanwhile said Wednesday they did not think it was likely the EU would reinstate import duties for Ukraine any time soon.

“I really cannot imagine EU would stop it. Anyway, corn is [virtually] free and that is the main product [being imported],” one told Agricensus.

Another source suggested the main reason for Kowalczyk’s resignation was his own policy errors on the issue rather than the Commission's proposal to extend the duty-free regime.

Poland is set to hold elections later this year.