EU leaders will consider all available ways to circumvent the food export blockade imposed by Russia on Ukraine’s ports, including a naval mission to escort cargo ships, but will not concede to Russia’s demands to lift sanctions, sources told EURACTIV.
Throughout Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, which began on 24 February, the global supply chain has been plagued by uncertainty – in particular in relation to wheat, cereals, and edible oils.
This places food security high up on the agenda for EU leaders, who will meet to discuss the Ukraine crisis in Brussels on Monday and Tuesday (30 and 31 May, respectively), with all things food-related scheduled for the second day.
“The European Council strongly condemns the destruction and illegal appropriation by Russia of agricultural production in Ukraine,” the latest leaked draft Council conclusions, seen by EURACTIV, read, emphasising that the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine is having a “direct impact on global food security and affordability.”
One EU diplomat told EURACTIV ahead of the European Council that the meeting will address “consequences related to the difficulties in exporting food commodities” to tackle the “risk of spillover effect in the Maghreb countries and in the Middle East caused by agricultural prices.”
The main objective is “trying to bypass the blockade on food exports caused by Russia, in particular from Odesa,” according to the source, who also added that “the EU will do so in all available ways.”
There are currently 20 million tonnes of wheat stuck in Ukraine, which, together with Russia, provide up to a third of the world’s grain exports.
Ukraine usually exports five million tonnes of grain per month but is currently only managing to export a fraction of this, between 200,000 to one million tonnes per month.
From ‘solidarity lanes’ to a special naval mission
According to the draft conclusions, EU leaders will discuss ways to facilitate food exports from Ukraine “via different land routes and EU ports,” as well as ways to accelerate work on the Commission’s proposed ‘solidarity lanes’ which aim to establish alternative logistics routes using all relevant transport modes.
However, concerns have been raised over the solidarity lanes, as they will be mostly based on Ukraine’s obsolete railways, where seaports were accounting for 90% of Ukraine’s export before the war.
This makes the opening of Ukraine’s key ports, including Odesa, a key priority for the Council meeting.
Earlier this week, David Beasley, the executive director of the United Nation’s World Food Programme, warned that a failure to open these ports would be a “declaration of war on global food security” that would result in “famine and destabilisation and mass migration around the world”.
However, EU leaders are not expected to entertain the idea of dropping sanctions on Russia in exchange for opening the key Ukrainian port of Odesa, as demanded by Russian President Vladimir Putin in a phone call with Italy’s Mario Draghi.
Instead, there is likely to be a discussion on a special naval mission for Ukrainian grain to set up safe corridors for grain exports from Ukraine’s ports.
This option has already been advocated by the UK government, which was reported to mull over a plan to send warships to the Black Sea and escort cargos exporting Ukrainian grain.
Such a mission would need to be under the umbrella of the United Nations to be effectively legal under international law and the EU is in strict contact with the UN secretary-general António Guterres to move forward on this option, EURACTIV has been informed.
In order to be effective, the mission must also receive a humanitarian, rather than military, mandate from the UN and the participating countries.
European Council president Charles Michel, who will meet Guterres in the coming days, is expected to ask EU leaders their opinion on the possibility to set up such a special mission.
Other agrifood issues expected to be discussed by EU leaders on Tuesday include ways to work with international partners to promote more efficient use of and alternatives to fertilisers in view of the ongoing fertiliser shortages in the global market.
Meanwhile, the European Council is also expected to underline the importance of the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) in the EU’s contribution to food security and call for the swift adoption of the CAP strategic plans (see below for more details).
[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]