21.04.23 Review

Right vs Right: the ban on Ukrainian agricultural exports to Europe is aimed at preventing the fracturing of Europe’s left-right coalition in their support of Ukraine

The ban on the import of Ukrainian agricultural products to Europe has triggered the biggest crisis in the EU’s Ukraine policy in the past 13 months of war. The US and EU have not only provided Ukraine with weapons, but have also sent financial support to revive its economy, which has been destroyed by both the war and the blockade of trade routes via the Black Sea. The EU talks frequently about the prospect of Ukraine’s integration into the union, however, the first clash of economic interests within the bloc has ultimately led to the introduction of protectionist measures against Ukrainian goods. Nonetheless, the ban initiated by Poland should not be seen as a reverse of previous declarations, but rather as an attempt to avoid an even deeper political crisis in Europe when it comes to the topic of Ukraine. A pro-Ukrainian majority in the EU has ensured that the left and a significant part of the right are in agreement when it comes to the bloc’s stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, this consensus risks being challenged if the right-wing parties which are critical of the EU’s current position and advocate a ‘pragmatic’ approach to resolving the Russian-Ukrainian conflict become more popular among right-wing voters.

Towards the end of March, the Prime Ministers of several countries, including Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovakia, appealed to the President of the European Commission to take action regarding agricultural imports from Ukraine. ‘Let’s support Ukraine, but let’s do it wisely and put the interests of Polish farmers first,’ Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki tweeted. These politicians called for the agreement of a joint policy between the EU and the World Food Program, more funding to support affected farmers, improved transport infrastructure for the transit of Ukrainian goods, and greater control over the volume and direction of supplies. However, the EU’s response was limited to an extension of the duty-free import of Ukrainian grain until June 2024. Following this decision, the Polish Minister of Agriculture resigned, and ten days later, Poland unilaterally imposed a temporary ban on the import of Ukrainian grain, milk, eggs, and poultry meat. Hungary, Slovakia, and Bulgaria followed suit.

Ultimately, the political issue at hand is that farmers have suffered economic difficulties and discontent due to the EU’s unconditional support of Ukraine in the war with Russia. This situation has been exploited by right-wing and far-right parties in their criticism of the governments in their respective countries.

Over the past decade there has been a notable increase in the popularity of right-wing parties across Europe, and they achieved particular success in 2022. Marine Le Pen's party achieved a record number of seats in the French parliament in the spring, while the Italian elections in the autumn were won by the Brothers of Italy party, and their leader Giorgia Meloni became the first female prime minister of Italy and the first far-right prime minister in post-war Europe. In Sweden, the once-marginal Swedish Democrats gained over 20% of the vote, becoming the second most popular party in the country. Experts at the Pew Research Center have calculated that, generally speaking, right-wing populists increased their share of votes in elections across Europe last year.

At the same time, however, trust in Russia and Vladimir Putin has significantly fallen among supporters of right-wing parties in Europe, as previously reported by Re: Russia here. According to surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center, between 2020 and 2022, voters of the Lega and Forza Italia parties in Italy expressed a 49 percentage point drop in their support for Russia, while supporters of National Unity in France expressed a 34 percentage point drop, and supporters of Vox in Spain saw their support for Russia drop by 28 points. Hungary and Germany also witnessed a drop of 15 points in support for Russia among their right-wing voters. This decline in trust was observed in 13 of the 14 right-wing European parties surveyed, according to the experts at Pew Research Center. This drop in support has helped to ensure European unity regarding Ukraine, contrary to the Kremlin’s expectations. However, it is important to note that despite the sharp decline in trust in Moscow, supporters of right-wing populist parties still view Russia and Putin in a largely positive light.

Far-right and opposition right-wing parties use a ‘rhetoric of pragmatism’ to criticise their national governments and the EU’s policies on Ukraine and Russia. According to a survey conducted by the think tank CEPA, the far-right party Konfederacja in Poland has doubled its popularity over the past six months, reaching 10% for the first time since 2019. According to these estimates, it may potentially become the country’s third-largest party after the upcoming September 2023 elections. Konfederacja’s’s rise in popularity can partly be attributed to the fact that it appeals to those who are dissatisfied with the economic difficulties which have arisen as a result of the ongoing war. Konfederacja supports Polish farmers who have suffered losses due to cheap Ukrainian agricultural products and who are also a significant voting bloc for the ruling PiS party. In its campaign program, ‘On Poland’s Side,’ Konfederacja proposes a new approach to Ukraine policy, suggesting that Kyiv must guarantee the participation of Polish companies in the country's post-war reconstruction on favourable terms in exchange for aid. The party also criticises PiS for accepting Ukrainian refugees at the expense of the Polish budget, which cost the country approximately $9 billion last year. Additionally, Konfederacja is critical of Poland's NATO membership, calling it a tool of ‘American imperialism’ that limits Polish sovereignty. Recently, MP Janusz Korwin-Mikke, a central figure in Konfederacja and a supporter of Putin, was reprimanded for suggesting that Ukrainian citizens could be responsible for the atrocities committed in Bucha. On social media, he has insinuated that the United States is partly to blame for the war as Washington armed Ukraine, which thus provoked Russia's invasion.

According to the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), the Austrian far-right party FPÖ also experienced a surge in popularity last year. In a December 2022 survey, 29% of respondents expressed a willingness to vote for them. Prior to February 24, the FPÖ maintained close political ties with Russia and President Putin, and the party’s members echoed Moscow's criticism of Brussels during the refugee crisis. The party also opposed the EU’s sanctions against Russia in 2014. While the party has distanced itself from the Kremlin since February 24, on social media its supporters  present a different view of the war than that offered by other Austrian parties. Rather than seeing it as a war of aggression waged by a large state against its small neighbour, they perceive it as a struggle between two opposing sides, each pursuing its own interests and goals. The FPÖ has restrained itself from criticising Moscow, but has instead criticised Brussels' sanctions against Russia, emphasising the harm they have inflicted on the Austrian economy. The party’s supporters believe that the real aim of the conflict is to weaken Russia and make Europe more reliant on the United States.

In Germany, the far-right party AfD has also seen an increase in support from voters over the past year. The party is critical of the sanctions imposed on Russia, opposes the supply of weapons to Ukraine, and believes that NATO policy has contributed to the escalation of the conflict. AfD also advocates for negotiations with Russia as a means to achieve a quick end to the war. The party’s members hold regular demonstrations and marches to urge a swift end to the conflict, with the latest event held in Nuremberg last week. In the autumn of 2022, some representatives from AfD were able to visit the occupied territories of Ukraine, gaining access to these regions from Russia.

The ‘farming’ crisis ultimately poses a danger as it could trigger a shift in the rhetoric of right-wing voters, according to European experts in a recent article on the ‘fragile’ phenomenon of right-left unity towards Ukraine policy in Europe 2022. This crisis highlights the economic consequences of the EU's unconditional support for Ukraine, and could further exacerbate the dissatisfaction that is already present among right-wing voters.