EU at odds over how to balance Russian sanctions and world food security

Hawks fear tweaks to sanctions to ease fertiliser trade could create ruinous loophole

Lithuania's President Gitanas Nauseda said he was "a little bit concerned about the attempts to relax the mechanism of sanctions under the cover of food security.” Photograph: John THYS/AFP via Getty Images

European Union countries are wrestling over whether and how to adjust sanctions placed on Russia in response to concerns about their effect on the global food supply.

Food, fertiliser and agricultural products have always been exempted from the EU’s sanctions. But importers complain that because sanctioned oligarchs and their businesses are involved in the trade, there can be uncertainty over whether shipments fall under the sanctions or not, causing processing delays at ports.

The 27 national leaders were divided over how to address the issue as they met in Brussels for their final EU summit of the year.

France, Spain and Germany are said to be pushing strongly for the EU to make a legal change to its sanctions regime to make the exemption of fertiliser clear beyond doubt, to combat an international perception that blames Western sanctions for food insecurity in the developing world.

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But a group of so-called “sanctions hawks”, including the Baltic States and Poland, fear the issue of food security is being exploited by Russia as a ruse to water down sanctions.

They fear that a step such as exempting all companies involved in the chain of ownership of the fertiliser trade from sanctions measures would create a loophole that would be exploited.

“We are a little bit concerned about the attempts to relax the mechanism of sanctions under the cover of food security,” Lithuanian president Gitanas Nausėda told reporters as he arrived at the summit.

“Food security is important but it should not be used as an excuse for the relaxation of some sanctions for some Russian oligarchs, because every day Ukrainian people are dying under Russian bombs.”

One senior diplomat said “there is definitely a problem” with the current sanctions regime, as authorities were bogged down with trying to determine the status of “huge containers of fertiliser in Rotterdam and Antwerp”.

But more cautious EU countries believe that a more moderate step, such as providing guidance stating clearly that fertiliser is exempt, should be sufficient to address it.

The issue of fertiliser is key because it affects the abundance of food in the coming harvest season, influencing how long the world will be affected by shortages caused by the invasion of Ukraine – a major supplier of the world’s basic foodstuffs.

Ukraine’s growing cycle was interrupted by the invasion, with fields turned into battle sites, agricultural equipment destroyed and the countryside laid with mines.

A sign reads 'Stop mines' set up next to during a demining operation not far from Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine. Photograph: Alessandro Guerra/EPA-EFE

A deal brokered by the United Nations allowed grain exports from Ukraine’s ports to resume through the Black Sea, bringing relief to vulnerable countries that rely on a country long known as the breadbasket of Europe for staples such as vegetable oil, wheat and corn.

The European Commission is preparing a ninth package of sanctions on Russia, adding dozens more individuals and entities linked to the invasion to the long list already subject to asset freezes and travel bans.

The commission has also proposed sanctioning three more Russian banks, limiting Moscow’s access to drones and drone parts, and restricting dual-purpose goods such as chemicals, nerve agents, electronics and IT parts, in a bid to limit Moscow’s ability to wage war.

In a video address from Ukraine to the Brussels summit, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy urged leaders to ensure Russia faced consequences for causing a “humanitarian catastrophe” by attacking energy infrastructure to deprive civilians of heat and light.

Sanctions are “our protection”, he told the leaders. “Please understand that!”

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times