**The article was updated with comments by the prime ministers of Latvia and Belgium
One of the ways out of the looming world food crisis is to re-channel the million tonnes of grain stuck in Ukraine via Belarus. The difficulty, however, is of political nature: the EU would need to lift the sanctions it recently imposed on Belarus.
As EU leaders meet for the second day of their extraordinary summit on Tuesday (31 May), they will discuss the looming food crisis and ways of circumventing the Russian blockade on Ukrainian exports.
Throughout Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, which began on 24 February, global agricultural supply chains have been plagued by uncertainty – in particular in relation to wheat, cereals, and edible oils.
Ukrainian farmers now have an estimated 22 million metric tons of grain stuck in storehouses. Entire countries, especially in the Middle East and Africa, are dependent on Ukrainian imports of wheat, corn, and sunflower oil.
The UN anticipates a global food crisis if the Ukraine stocks remain blocked.
According to sources, diplomats have been discussing the Belarus route – channeling the grain from Ukraine to the Baltic Sea, instead of the Black Sea. The advantage of such a solution is that Belarus has the same width of rails as Ukraine, inherited from Soviet times.
Belarus is a landlocked country, but it used to export huge quantities of potash by rail to the Lithuanian port of Klaipeda. Lithuania is also a former Soviet republic which has inherited the Soviet-standard rails.
The EU has banned all Belarusian imports of potash, a crucial fertiliser that is largely deficient in Europe. The decision was taken in retaliation for Minsk’s support of Russia in its military attack against Ukraine.
Economic penalties targeting Belarus potash exports were already introduced back in June in the aftermath of the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in Minsk that led to the incarceration of opposition activist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, who were both travelling to Lithuania.
Asked about the Belarus route on Monday, Luxembourgish PM Xavier Bettel said the issue was tricky.
“To lift the sanctions because of opportunity reasons for us, which are different from the reasons for which we imposed the sanctions, I find this a bit tricky”, he said.
Bettel added that this was an issue to be discussed at the summit.
“Let’s talk about everything and find common solutions”, he said.
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko said he expects Russia to build a new Baltic Sea port for exports of Belarusian potash which are hit by Western sanctions. He made the declarations last February during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Asked by EURACTIV about the Belarus route, Krišjānis Kariņš, the prime minister of Latvia, said on Tuesday that all options needed to be explored, but all of them had potential difficulties.
“Belarus is sanctioned, and properly so, together with Russia. In order for Belarus to agree to export Ukrainian grain, which physically could have been done quite easily through the Baltic ports, we have a lot of capacity. The question is what will Belarus ask in return. And that price may be too high.”
Asked the same question, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo said the Belarus route did not seem viable because of the sanctions.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]