Banned pesticides found in Ukraine agri imports prove sticky point

The detection of pesticides banned in the EU in shipments of wheat from Ukraine has added an extra layer of complexity to the unilateral decision of several neighbouring countries to block all Ukrainian agricultural imports, muddying the legality of the situation.

Poland and Slovakia were among those bordering Ukraine that banned the import of Ukrainian agricultural goods after EU measures to help Ukraine export agricultural commodities – including the EU’s ‘solidarity lanes initiative’ and a temporary liberalisation of tariffs and quotas – saw an influx of goods such as grain and poultry, pushing prices down and farmers to the edge.

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The decision to halt these imports – which was taken unilaterally – caused considerable consternation among stakeholders, some of whom warn the move could be in breach of EU law given trade is an exclusive EU competence.

However, the two countries are now citing human, as well as animal and plant, health concerns as justification for the move – all of which can technically qualify, under certain circumstances, for an exemption from EU trade law.

According to reports, 1,500 tonnes of wheat imported from Ukraine into Slovakia was found to contain chlorpyrifos, a pesticide banned in the EU back in 2020, despite the fact it was not intended EU internal market, but for third countries.

Likewise, Poland – which, following an agreement struck on Tuesday (18 April) announced transit within its borders will be resumed on Friday – has raised phytosanitary concerns, pointing out it has made a number of alerts via the EU’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF). This system is designed to keep other countries abreast of future potential risks.

“The urgency of its regulation is related, among others, to the statement by the Slovak and Polish control services of the content of harmful and prohibited substances in the EU (pesticides),” a spokesperson for the Polish permanent representation to the EU told EURACTIV.

This includes a notification over the same banned pesticide on 23 February labelled as ‘serious’ and another from 17 April labelled as ‘potentially serious’, which was classified as a ‘border rejection notification’.

According to a Commission spokesperson, as many as 28 notifications have been made by various EU countries concerning shipments of agricultural products from Ukraine since 1 January.

However, the spokesperson pointed out such notifications are part of a “normal process” and that numerous updates are made daily.

“Just because there is a notification, this does not automatically mean there is a big issue or a big risk,” the Commission spokesperson told EURACTIV.

But does this provide legal exemption?

Asked by EURACTIV, a Commission spokesperson said the legal exemption only refers to specific incidences, rather than a blanket ban on all imports.

However, they declined to speculate as to whether a continued blockade would lead to legal action against the countries, instead insisting the aim is to find a “collective, European response” which negates the need for unilateral action.

Meanwhile, David Kleimann, EU trade expert at the Brussels-based economic think tank Bruegel, explained to EURACTIV that while unilateral decisions on trade are conclusively a competence of the EU, there are a few exemptions to the EU’s import regulation framework.

“Member states can – under certain, specific conditions – can take bans into their own hands, but these are very narrow and strict, and subject to proportionality instruments,” he told EURACTIV.

By invoking the public security argument, the countries may be laying the foundations for a legal defence that is public and on the record, he suggested.

But Kleimann said it was “rather unlikely” that this justification for a complete import ban would “fly under the banner of public security”.

No mention of pesticides during member state meeting

The Swedish presidency announced the topic will be discussed at the upcoming meeting of EU agriculture ministers on 25 April.

Following a preparatory meeting on Monday (17 April) ahead of the ministerial gathering, which featured a last-minute discussion on the import bans, a source inside the meeting told EURACTIV there was no mention of pesticides or public health concerns from the countries concerned.

This is despite the fact that some of the other EU countries, including Romania, indicated their intention to follow suit with a similar ban of their own.

Instead, the message from the countries seeking bans was that they are “overwhelmed”, the source told EURACTIV, adding that Hungary and Poland stressed the bans were “necessary to address the impact of solidarity lanes on their farmers”.

The move has not gone down well among other member states, with more than a dozen taking the floor to slam the move, and some noting such unilateral action works in Russia’s favour, the source said.

Likewise, the centre-right of the European Parliament released a statement on Tuesday (18 April) condemning the move, saying it is “helping Russia”.

[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]


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