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Germany has led the charge in condemning Poland, Hungary and Slovakia for unilaterally restricting food imports from Ukraine, accusing the countries of finding fault with EU policies and putting their own interests ahead of Ukraine’s.

The speech by German Food and Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir underscored the wider implications of the Ukraine grain dispute, which poses the biggest challenge to Brussels’ authority over EU trade in decades.

The European Commission on Friday lifted an import ban on four Ukrainian cereals, including wheat and corn, on the condition that Kyiv agrees to prevent an influx of grains into EU neighbours.

In the following hours, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary flouted EU rules and imposed their own restrictions to protect farmers from an alleged glut of Ukrainian products. Poland and Slovakia are both due to hold elections within weeks.

Ozdemir said the committee had made the “right decision” to lift the ban and accused Eastern European countries of “part-time solidarity” with Ukraine. “When it works for you, you’re united, and when it doesn’t suit you, you’re not united,” he said.

France and Spain also criticized the move as a violation of core EU rules, which have empowered the European Commission to oversee common trade policy since the 1970s.

French Agriculture Minister Marc Fesneau said the unilateral measures “raise serious doubts about the single market and the common market.” Spanish Agriculture Minister Luis Planas said the measures were illegal but said it was “up to the commission to judge”.

Ukraine has said it will add Poland, Slovakia and Hungary to the WTO and may retaliate by imposing trade restrictions on products from the three countries.

The unilateral ban puts the European Commission in an awkward position as it acts as the EU’s trade negotiator. If Ukraine takes WTO action, Brussels could face having to defend the three countries against Kiev.

The commission has so far declined to detail whether it will take formal legal action against the three rebel nations, insisting it is trying to find a compromise. A Polish-led group first introduced the import ban earlier this year, and the European Commission later adopted it as an EU-wide measure to deal with a temporary surge in supply.

Ukrainian farmer Yakiv Marynchenko, 67, displays wheat grains with stones outside a crop warehouse
Brussels lifts import tariffs on Ukrainian grains to boost Ukraine’s economy shortly after Russia’s invasion ©Oleksandr Ratushniak/Reuters

A spokesman for the European Commission said Brussels was “analyzing the measures being taken” with a focus on “making the system work”.

Shortly after Russia’s full-scale invasion, Brussels lifted import tariffs on Ukrainian grains in an effort to boost Ukraine’s economy. China has also invested millions of euros in improving infrastructure along rail and river corridors to try to get grain to ports in other EU countries, after Moscow pulled out of plans to allow exports through the Black Sea.

Hungary said on Friday it would continue to restrict Ukrainian grain imports and added dozens of food categories, including frozen and fresh beef, pork, lamb, goat, honey and wine.

“If cheap Ukrainian imports flood the markets of neighboring EU member states . . . we cannot stand idly by,” Hungarian Agriculture Minister István Nagy said on Facebook on Saturday.

Poland also added certain seeds and Ukrainian flour to four grains banned by the EU’s original ban.

The issue has become a particularly hot topic in Poland ahead of national elections in October. Poland’s Agriculture Minister Robert Tellus said in an interview with the People’s Action Party news agency last week that Ukraine should not be allowed to join the EU unless it meets certain conditions for agricultural exports.

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