Pain and Grain in Central Europe
Ukraine is causing a food crisis, just not the kind some expected.
Last August, Polish President Andrzej Duda tweeted that he had “assured” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky over the phone “that Ukraine has full and cross-party support in the fight against the Kremlin's aggression.” Duda’s not the only world leader to make such broad and boundless promises to the Ukrainian president—President Joe Biden and his administration have repeatedly said America will support Ukraine “as long as it takes.”
It appears Zelensky has taken these promises at face value, making outlandish demands for financial and military support, not to mention making a Russian withdrawal from Crimea the precursor to any potential peace talks. But he has a point: If Ukraine has Poland and America’s unmitigated support, what is to stop Zelensky from asking for anything his country desires, and what is Poland and America’s justification for saying no?
It is impossible to make good on empty promises. Zelensky seems to be finding that out the hard way.
Poland has announced a ban on imports of Ukrainian grain, wheat, corn, and other food products after striking a deal with Kiev late last week. Over the weekend, Poland expanded the rules to cover dozens of food products, and a Sunday tweet from Polish Economic Development and Technology Minister Waldemar Buda said the regulations, which have been effective since being added to Poland’s Journal of Laws, also prevents the transit of Ukrainian products through Poland.
The Polish government, controlled by the conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS), has come under recent pressure from farmers. Poland has been unable to limit the influx of Ukrainian grain and other food products after the European Union suspended tariffs on them until June 2024.
Farmers claim that grain- and food-storage facilities are already full as Poland prepares to enter another harvest season, and the glut has caused some domestic food prices to crater, endangering the financial stability of Poland’s agricultural sector. The government’s inability to address the problem has led to widespread criticism and protests from farmers, the agricultural sector, and rural communities, interests that make up the core of PiS’s constituency going into a competitive election later this year.
The pressure forced Poland’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) and Deputy Prime Minister Henryk Kowalczyk to resign his post earlier this month. Kowalczyk claims he resigned because he was unable to convince the European Union to back off its current policy. "As it is clear that this demand will not be met by the European Commission at this point, I decided to resign from the post of agriculture minister," Kowalczyk said.
While the PiS-led government has made solving its grain glut a top priority—Jaroslaw Kacynski, the leader of the PiS, said, “we have a duty to protect our citizens, farmers and avoid a crisis of our agriculture”—he promised that Poland “will keep on supporting Ukraine.” That much is certainly clear: Poland is in the process of sending MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine, something the Polish government was hesitant to do last year, given Russia’s warnings. Other Central European countries appear to be following Poland’s lead and are in the process of handing over some of their MiG-29s, too.
Even the United States, by far Ukraine’s biggest backer and without which Ukraine’s government would likely be in financial and military ruin, has refused to provide Ukraine with the fighter jets Zelensky routinely requests. The old Soviet MiG-29s Poland is giving Ukraine, however, are much less capable and threatening than the F-16s the U.S. would provide. The Polish government has recognized as much, understating the significance of their handing some MiG-29s over to Ukraine, claiming the planes are old and near the end of their service.
The Kremlin condemned the fighter jet transfers, but seems to recognize that providing Ukraine the old MiG-29s would not require nearly the Western footprint in the conflict zone as, say, proper training and maintenance for U.S.-provided F-16s. Nevertheless, Russia seeks to make the Polish government’s predictions that these jets are near the end of their usefulness come true. "Of course, during the special military operation, all this equipment will be subject to destruction," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in March.
Though the most recent round of MiG-29 transfers was brokered between Ukraine, Poland, and Germany less than a week ago, the Ukrainian government went on the attack. “We understand that Polish farmers are facing a difficult situation, but we are emphasizing, that now the most difficult situation is for Ukraine’s farmers,” the Ukrainian Ministry of Agrarian Policy and Food said in a statement. But Polish politicians are elected to represent Poles, not Ukrainians.
Poland is not the only country challenging the European Union’s policy on Ukrainian food exports. Last month, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki was joined by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and the prime ministers of Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovakia to call on the E.U. to reconsider the policy and curb Ukrainian grain imports by reintroducing tariffs. The E.U., as mentioned, has thus far refused to do so.
After news broke that Poland would be instituting measures to protect its domestic agricultural sector, Hungarian Minister of Agriculture Istvan Nagy said, “in the absence of meaningful E.U. measures,” Hungary would pursue similar policies.
In an email to the New York Times, a European Commission spokesperson said that its trade policy regarding Ukrainian grain and food products falls under “E.U. exclusive competence,” and that “unilateral actions are not acceptable” per the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.
Initially, the policy to facilitate grain exportation from Ukraine was not without merit. After Russia invaded Ukraine last year, the European Union lifted tariffs on Ukrainian grain and other food products in fear of potential food shortages. Their fears were not unfounded. The mineral-rich “black soil” found in eastern Ukraine and into Russia has given the region the nickname the “breadbasket of the world.”
Just two weeks after the Russian invasion began, The American Conservative's own John Hirschauer wrote:
Well before war broke out in Ukraine, prices in the food industry were surging. U.S. food prices rose a whopping 7.5 percent between 2021 and 2022. Indexed global food prices hit an all-time high last month.
The causes are familiar. Supply-chain disruptions have slowed production and slashed supply…
The effects of the war in Ukraine and the sanctions imposed against the Russian government and economy threaten to accelerate these trends. Russia is the world’s leading producer of wheat; Ukraine is fifth. Together, they are responsible for some 30 percent of the world’s wheat exports. War will almost certainly disrupt planting season in both Russia and Ukraine.
Supply uncertainty was only compounded by a Russian naval blockade of Odessa during Russia’s initial offensive. Russia’s blockade came to an end, however, after Turkey and the United Nations brokered an agreement between Moscow and Kiev in July 2022 that allowed Ukraine to export food products from the Odessa, Chernomorsk, and Yuzhny ports. That agreement was re-upped for another 120 days in November 2022, and then again in March.
The agreement is supposed to remain in place until at least May 18, but Russia seems to be reconsidering keeping the deal in place because of continued Western sanctions on its own food products.
For now, initial fears of international food shortages have not borne fruit. In fact, some research suggested that the impact the war would have on global food supply was overstated. A report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) found that, despite the war, the world had “a relatively comfortable supply level” of cereals. The World Bank concurred that cereal supply was at historically high levels while noting that about three-quarters of Russian and Ukrainian grain from the previous harvesting season had been exported before the war began. And where Ukrainian and Russian production has fallen short, other countries have picked up the slack.
What seemed sensible in the early stages of the Ukraine war—opening up the E.U. for Ukrainian food exports—before the end of the naval blockade, before other countries increased their agricultural outputs amidst potential shortages, before knowing that cereal stockpiles were secure, is starting to look increasingly untenable given the impact it is having on the European Union’s eastern front. But it doesn’t appear Brussels is going to budge.
There are two lessons to take from these events as they unfold.
First, the European Union’s unwillingness to reconsider its trade policy with Ukraine goes to show that the core of the European project is cultural, not economic. From its early days as the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the purpose of placing certain war-time industries under a supranational authority was to prevent war and promote liberal political arrangements and associations. The Schuman Declaration, which outlined the plan for the ECSC, said so explicitly: “The pooling of coal and steel production should immediately provide for the setting up of common foundations for economic development as a first step in the federation of Europe.”
What appears as a cruel twist of fate, an economic arrangement originally designed for the prevention of war on the continent of Europe being used to prolong one, is actually the extension of the logic that undergirds the entire project: Liberalism requires a supranational authority that cracks down on those who question the liberal utopian project of the autonomous individual. The world has witnessed this phenomenon over recent years in the E.U.’s attacks on Poland and Hungary over a grab-bag of liberal bugbears—the Ukraine grain debacle is merely the latest. Though Russia is not a part of the bloc, like Hungary and Poland, it wants to bring Russia to heel, too. The E.U. treats its universal principles as just that: universal.
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The second lesson, which fits nicely with the first, is on the nature of capital. Capital’s neutral, amoral qualities means there is nothing inherently useful in it other than its use, which can be quite powerful, directed towards a higher goal. Not just capital, but the entire realm of economics, should be understood this way: a powerful means to which men can pursue higher goods. The combination of proper use and proper ordering leads to well-constructed markets, which can be seen as intermediate ends that allow communities to discern the good and pursue it on their own accord.
But without this understanding, capital is an alienating force. There is no inherent economic difference between capital that comes from Ukraine and capital that comes from Poland. That difference must be derived politically. This helps explain why liberal institutions that seek individual atomization often feign neutrality on capital matters—they’re happy to let capital do the work for them.
It’s no wonder Ukraine’s Ministry of Agriculture suggested Ukrainian farmers deserved more protection than Polish farmers from the Polish government and that the European Union has decided to support Ukraine in this regard. Ukraine is behaving exactly as the liberal ideologues hoped they would, but even more so. Poland may be trying to re-inject some economic realism into conversations at the E.U., but for now, the tail continues to wag the dog.