Margarethe (left) and Alice (right) are both beef farmers from the Netherlands. They have gathered in Brussels with other farmers to demonstrate against the EU's free trade agreement with Ukraine. Image: Jakob Kerren.

FUF-correspondents, Report

The EU is torn between its farmers and support for Ukraine

Intensive peasant protests has put EU politicians under pressure. The farmers are angry about the Union's free trade agreement with third countries. The problem is only that one of the the countries are Ukraine - who need every penny in the war against Russia.  

Belgian industrial pioneer John Cockeril lies motionless on the ground. Smoke has spread around his figure and at his head rises a burning pile of rubble and pieces of metal. John Cockeril has been dead for almost 200 years, but since 1872, in the form of a statue, he has been allowed to look out over the Place du Luxembourg in front of the European Parliament in Brussels. 

Those who have now brought down his legacy are protesting farmers. With their tractors, they have driven up to the EU Parliament where armed police have barricaded themselves with barbed wire and Spanish horsemen. Videos are circulating online showing police officers standing on one side of the cordon and farmers with muddy faces on the other.  

Tractors have been widely used in peasant protests in Europe. When the Dutch organization Agractie protested in Brussels on April 16, the vehicles were of course there. Image: Jakob Kerren.

The farmers are dissatisfied with the EU's agricultural policy, which they believe limits their income. One of the problems they highlight is the free trade agreements the EU has entered into with countries outside the Union. The problem for the politicians is just that one of these countries is the war-torn Ukraine, to which the EU has declared its unconditional support.  

Solidarity at a price

Ukraine is one of the world's largest exporters of agricultural products such as wheat, oats and rye. The sector makes up 40 percent of the country's export earnings. However, shortly after Russia's February 2022 invasion, Ukraine's most important trade route through the Black Sea was cut off. 

- Our farmers were so desperate that they just tried to get rid of their products, says Oleksandra Avramenko, head of European integration at the agricultural organization UCAB in Ukraine, to Development magazine.  

The raw materials had to be transported by land to EU territory instead. To help Ukraine, Brussels decided to open the so-called “the solidarity corridors”, which enabled continued Ukrainian exports through neighboring countries such as Poland, Slovakia and Hungary.  

In addition, the EU and Ukraine signed an agreement that lifted tariffs and other restrictions on imports of everything from meat and fruit to grain from the war-torn country. 

- It helped our farmers a lot, says Oleksandra Avramenko.  

But it quickly became a problem. The amount of grain, especially from Ukraine, was so great that the capacity of the solidarity corridors was not enough for long distances. Some of the raw materials were therefore dumped on the local markets of Ukraine's EU neighbors, causing domestic prices to plummet.  

Even the free trade agreement, which has made Ukrainian products easily available and cheap in the EU's internal market, has been heavily criticized by the Union's farmers. They believe that they cannot compete with the Ukrainian prices. 

During the demonstrations in Brussels, the tractors were mostly stationary. Image: Jakob Kerren.

The conflict reached its climax in April 2023 when Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Bulgaria blocked the import of grain from Ukraine. The EU tried to maintain a balance between support for Ukraine and the needs of its farmers by paying aid to the affected farmers, but it did little to help. It all became a sign of a first crack in the EU's hitherto stable support for Ukraine.  

Rockets yes, chicken no

Despite Ukraine's neighbors reopening grain trade routes, much remains in flux two years after the EU reached out to Ukraine. Above all, the free trade agreement has been hanging loose during the spring.  

- It's not fair, we can't compete with them, says Alice, who is holding a banner with the text "Proud of the farmers" together with her friend Margarethe at Place Jean Rey Plein in Brussels.

They are both members of Agractie, an agricultural union in the Netherlands that is carrying out a protest action in Brussels on April 16. Alice and Margarethe, who do not want to give their surnames, are beef farmers in the Netherlands. Despite torrential rain, they have come all the way to the EU's capital to raise the alarm about their falling income.  

They shake their heads when free trade with Ukraine comes up.  

- No, we don't want that, says Margarethe. 

According to them, Ukrainian farmers have an unfair advantage as they do not have to adhere to the same regulations as EU farmers, which makes their products cheaper. They see it as a double standard on the part of the EU — the Union has decided that agriculture should be sustainable and animal-friendly, while importing food from other countries that have not adhered to such standards.  

Alice and Margarethe explain that they still support Ukraine, but that it is a complicated issue.  

- I'm in favor of sending rockets there, but I don't want their chicken to come here, says Alice.  

"We had really hoped for more solidarity"

- It is an unfair statement, says Oleksandra Avramenko, from the agricultural organization UCAB, when she hears what Alice has said.  

- To a large extent, we already have to adhere to the same rules as EU farmers.

Oleksandra Avramenko works for the agricultural organization UCAB in Ukraine. She believes that the EU has failed Ukraine for its farmers. Image: Jakob Kerren.

According to her, there is something very important that EU farmers have but Ukraine's farmers lack: predictability.  

- If you stop using the land, it loses its carrying capacity and it takes a long time to get it back. The same goes for investments — you need predictability.  

Oleksandra Avramenko is often on the move within the EU to inform about the situation, which she believes is a major problem for Ukraine. As the current free trade agreement expires in June, the European Commission proposed to renew it with a similar agreement. But Ukraine's neighboring countries banded together to oppose it and were later supported by France.  

The agreement that was negotiated until the end means less free trade for Ukraine for a year to come. For example, the import of more cereal products than before must not exceed a certain amount, otherwise tariffs will be reintroduced. In addition, Brussels can cancel the agreement if the assessment is made that Ukrainian grain affects the farmers' business negatively. 

However, the compromise that resulted had no real winners, but rather, above all, a loser: Ukraine, according to Oleksandra Avramenko. She believes that the new agreement in the long run means a limitation of the country's defense capabilities.  

- We calculate that our farmers will lose approximately 300 million euros on this agreement, which will be 75 million euros less for defense because basically all our tax money goes there. 

According to Oleksandra Avramenko, Ukraine is left in the lurch.  

- We had really hoped for more solidarity from our European friends, but it seems that the attitude is, "We support Ukraine at all costs, as long as it does not affect our farmers".

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