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Macron backs restrictions on £1bn Ukrainian imports to EU

Emmanuel Macron, the French president, speaks with Benoit Payan, Marseille's mayor, on Tuesday after a Monday night meeting of ambassadors in Brussels
Emmanuel Macron, the French president, speaks with Benoit Payan, Marseille's mayor, on Tuesday after a Monday night meeting of ambassadors in Brussels - CHRISTOPHE ENA/AP

France has backed a proposal to impose restrictions on duty-free imports of Ukrainian agricultural goods to the EU – which are worth more than one billion euros a year.

Paris swung behind Poland ahead of crunch negotiations to roll over the duty-free trade regime brought in to help the Ukrainian economy after Putin’s illegal invasion.

It supported calls for limits on Ukrainian poultry, eggs, sugar and wheat, which Polish farmers argue is undercutting them in their domestic market.

Emmanuel Macron’s move at a Monday night meeting of ambassadors in Brussels has put him at odds with allies including Germany, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries.

The French president promised local farmers he would protect them from imports after tractors besieged Paris earlier this year.

“The most cynical thing about this is the two member states leading the charge on this, Poland and France, are the two that are the most vocal in saying we must do everything to help Ukraine,” an EU diplomat told The Telegraph.

“Macron is ready to send troops but he is not ready to set up tractors,” they added, referring to the French president’s recent suggestion the West had not ruled out boots on the ground in Ukraine.

The diplomat said France had performed a volte-face after Mr Macron met Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister, in Berlin on Friday.

It had put France on the same side as Hungary and Slovakia, which are led by Putin-friendly governments, in talks ahead of negotiations with MEPs on the new regime on Tuesday night.

Belgian diplomats were holding talks over the new regime with European Parliament negotiators on Tuesday night to try and strike a deal.

Sources said a key issue was the length of time used to measure whether Ukrainian imports were distorting a market in a member state.

Belgian farmers burn wooden pallets and tyres as they block the highway in Aalter, Belgium,
Belgian farmers burn wooden pallets and tyres as they block the highway in Aalter, Belgium, in January in protest to highlight their declining incomes - OLIVIER MATTHYS/SHUTTERSTOCK

The European Parliament wants a longer period, dating to before the invasion. That became clear after member states backed last year’s European Commission’s proposal to continue duty-free trade for another year from June.

The parliament’s demand complicated what was expected to be a simple passing of the duty-free regime, giving Warsaw time to win French support for its call for further restrictions.

Polish farmers have been protesting against cheaper agricultural imports from Ukraine.

Tractors have blockaded the border in a dispute that has strained usually warm relations between Warsaw and Kyiv.

The European Commission is preparing to hit Russian and Belarussian grain imports with tariffs in the first measures against food products since the invasion of Ukraine two years ago.

An EU diplomat said the move could be intended to soften the blow of the restrictions on Ukrainian trade but expressed doubt harming the Russian economy would help Kyiv’s.

Combines harvest wheat in Russian-held part of Zaporizhzhia region
Combines harvest wheat in Russian-held part of Zaporizhzhia region, Ukraine - ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO/REUTERS

Brussels had until now resisted pressure from Poland and the Baltic states, EU members demanding the toughest line against Putin, to hit the agricultural products.

Officials feared the move could disrupt global food markets and hurt developing countries but will now, in the latest concession to European farmers after watering down Net Zero rules for agriculture, press ahead.

In February, Latvia imposed a national ban on Russian and Belarussian food imports, while Lithuania imposed stricter cargo inspection rules.

The Polish prime minister warned earlier this month that Warsaw could impose its own national ban.

But he said he would prefer “we decide together, as the whole EU, on sanctions on Russia and Belarus on food and agricultural products”.

The commission is expected to impose a €95-per-tonne duty on cereals from Russia and Belarus in the coming days, the Financial Times reported.

That would increase costs by at least 50 per cent, which would kill off any demand for the product. Tariffs of 50 per cent will also be placed on oil seeds and derived products.

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Russian exports of cereals, oil seeds and their derivatives to the EU reached a record of 4 million tonnes last year, equivalent to 1 per cent of the bloc’s total consumption.

An EU official told the FT cereal prices were at four-year lows and Russian cereals were  “putting significant pressure” on prices.

The EU produces more than 300 million tonnes of cereals and oilseeds each year. Sources said Russian retaliation would be weak because Moscow has already banned most EU food imports and many European companies have pulled out of the country.

Products will still be allowed to transit through the EU en route to Africa and Asia.

Tariffs do not require the unanimous support of all 27 member states like sanctions. Hungary, which is soft on Russia, has delayed EU sanctions until winning concessions from the EU.

The Kremlin said it would need to analyse the EU decision when it was formally announced.