Editor’s take: The EU must respond to Moscow’s food diplomacy challenge

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Food diplomacy has already become the next front of the crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The two countries account for 53% of the world’s trade in sunflower oil and 27% of its trade in wheat. The lessons from the COVID pandemic, when the EU was undoubtedly a loser in terms of the vaccine diplomacy, are that it pays to be proactive. [SHUTTERSTOCK/MOMA_PRODUCTION]

Food diplomacy has already become the next front of the crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The two countries account for 53% of the world’s trade in sunflower oil and 27% of its trade in wheat. The lessons from the COVID pandemic, during which the EU was undoubtedly a loser in terms of vaccine diplomacy, are that it pays to be proactive.

China, in particular, used its quick donations of vaccines and personal protective equipment to enhance its diplomatic standing in developing countries. Meanwhile, the EU was slow to look beyond its borders, focusing on vaccinating its own people, leading it to face accusations of ‘vaccine apartheid’ and vaccine hoarding.

Moscow is already portraying the food crisis as a consequence of Western sanctions against Russia.

In an interview with the East African this week, Russia’s ambassador to Kenya, Dmitry Maksimychev, accused the West of having “used the pretext of the Ukraine crisis to wage economic war on Russia, isolate us as one of the world’s largest producers of food and fertilisers from the markets by denying us access to financial and transport services. Of course, this leads to shrinking offers of food and fertilisers and soaring prices.”

He added that “the West’s inept economic policies and dirty geopolitical games jeopardise food security and development of Africa”, before concluding, ominously, that “the problem is that the former colonial masters of Africa, slave traders and racists want to prevent us from cooperating with you.”

The EU had already been anxious about a rise in Russian influence in Africa ahead of the invasion of Ukraine. Particularly, the expanding presence of the Kremlin-linked mercenaries, the Wagner group, in a number of African states where the EU was providing defence and security support.

There is reason to be concerned. Of the 58 countries who abstained from the 7 April vote in the United Nations General Assembly to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council, 24 were African, while a further nine African countries voted against the resolution.

For his part, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has asked to address the African Union (AU), as well as several African national parliaments as part of his relentless campaign for international support.

However, Macky Sall, the President of Senegal who also chairs the AU, has not set a date, and many African officials are reticent to do so.

Elsewhere, the Kenyan government – despite being one of the most vocal critics of the Russian invasion – has declined a request from Zelenskyy to address their National Assembly, as Nairobi officials fear being dragged into a conflict that could hurt bilateral ties with both Kyiv and Moscow.

Raila Odinga, who is currently the narrow favourite to secure the Kenyan presidency at elections in August, told EURACTIV that his country stands to lose $100 million in lost exports to Russia because of the sanctions regime, which he supports, while over $400 million of wheat and maize imports from Russia and Ukraine are also under threat. There is a similar story across many African states whose public finances have already been badly damaged by the COVID pandemic.

The EU has set up a €225 million fund for North African states, several of which are particularly reliant on wheat and grain imports from Russia and Ukraine, to mitigate against shortages. Officials say, however, that the size of this fund will probably have to be significantly increased in Africa.

Commission officials told EURACTIV that the EU is particularly worried about losing the support of North African states. That could go some way to explaining why the Commission has promised to keep providing Tunisia with €450 million in financial support this year, despite the country’s slide back towards autocracy, and has intensified its dialogue with the government of Egyptian President Abdul Fatteh el-Sisi.

Earlier this week, France’s foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and agriculture minister Julien Denormandie held talks with EU Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarčič and David Beasley, Executive Director of the UN World Food Program (WFP), on the war’s consequences on food security, especially for developing countries and the world’s most vulnerable.

The WFP, meanwhile, has warned that its operational costs for 2022 will increase by $136 million in West Africa alone due to the ripple effect of the conflict in Ukraine in driving up global food and fuel prices.

France – the EU’s biggest agricultural producer – is pushing its recently established ‘FARM’ initiative, which would include a global food distribution mechanism for poorer nations.

However, providing financial support is only part of the solution. One of the AU’s main objectives is to dramatically increase the continent’s agricultural production. By ramping up investment in African agriculture, the EU can demonstrate that its ‘partnership of equals’ with Africa is not just talk, and improve the continent’s food security.

The long-delayed EU-African Union summit in February was held in the shadow of Russia’s slow march to war. The EU’s food diplomacy must learn from its COVID missteps to avoid this partnership becoming another victim of the war in Ukraine.

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