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COMMENT – Unilateral import bans on Ukrainian goods: von der Leyen needs to take a stand

Shameful. And dangerous. And this is not about a few tonnes of wheat. This is dangerous for the European Union as a polity. This is dangerous for its standing as a global trading power.

What else can be said about the week-end’s political episode ending with Poland, Hungary and Slovakia violating blatantly the EU’s customs union and single market, disregarding a freshly agreed political deal with the European Commission by banning unilaterally imports of grain, fruit and vegetables from Ukraine?

There is indeed something else that can be said: political leadership in the European Commission is wanting. Very, very badly wanting.

It’s been many years now that the commission, not least – but not only – von der Leyen’s commission, no longer acts as it should, namely as the guardian of EU treaties.

Von der Leyen’s leadership style is of the style that Germans like to call the the ‘Klüngel’. This is the rule of a clique of powerful people, lobbies and other networks doing each other favours. Back-scratching in a chummy, jovial way.

This leads to untransparent rule, policy inertia most of the time, impunity for wrong-doing, and the occasional messy, quick, arbitrary, badly executed political move when something breaks.

Whereas Klüngel is a very European thing, with national variants, in Germany, where Ursula von der Leyen comes from, this is the kind of leadership that has left Germany stripped naked when its EU-rule-violating Nord Stream gas pipeline policy blew apart the moment Russia invaded Ukraine. This is the kind of leadership that facilitated Dieselgate. This is the kind of leadership that leaves Germany with devastated infrastructure and ill-prepared for the digital revolution.

EU-style clique rule

Over the years in Brussels we have seen mutual back-scratching, heart-warming political chumminess, combined with sheer incompetence, among a nebulous network of mostly centre-right European People’s Party affiliated politicians across Europe putting their careers above the interest of those of the EU.

Too many among them have been busy making compromises with the surging far right, which is surging due to previous bad governance for which they precisely are responsible.

The trend is only accelerating.

I only mention the centre-right because it happens to have ruled the roost in Brussels in recent years and provided commission presidents since 2004: they are Clique Number One in the EU. I am not absolving the other established parties and political groups.

Now in power in Brussels, von der Leyen’s clique extends to the member states, on whom she depends for her next job, whichever it is she is looking for. She acts as their servant. She does everything to keep them happy instead of keeping them in line to uphold the wider EU interest.

This is visible in a range of policy areas, but also in the area of trade policy, with which this website is concerned first and foremost.

What is it the commission president owes the French government by risking an avoidable and unnecessary trade war with China over electric vehicles instead of credibly and forcefully fighting more fundamental battles with China on its Russia policy, human rights violations and broader economic system? Has anyone asked?

Did people ever think there would never be Chinese electric cars in Europe when the entire world is switching to the new technology?

But trade is only a side-show and at the tail-end of a deeper destabilising process going on in the EU ever since the Eurozone crisis.

Total impunity for rule-of-law violators

The Hungarians and Poles violate the basic principles of rule of law in their countries? Well, there’s been years of inaction in the commission, for clear party political reasons. Whatever happened in recent years to hold back monies from these countries in return for cosmetic changes to their rule of law violations is weak, meek and comes too late.

Hungary is now an authoritarian country and Poland is dangerously on track to becoming one. Meanwhile fundamental human rights and women’s rights are being violated.

The worst thing though is this: NOTHING HAPPENS.

The European Commission just lets this slip, dares not speak out or make a stand in public. Where is the commission to bring these countries to court over every single breach of EU laws and principles they are trampling upon and cutting funds more systematically whilst nudging the other member states to do something? That’s how the commission should have acted. But it has chosen not to act in that way.

No wonder these countries feel they just can trample on the foundations of the EU, i.e. its single market and its related customs union!  They know they can get away with it.

Risk to the EU as global commercial power

Does anyone in this Brussels bubble measure the consequences of this? Can the EU continue to be a credible commercial power in this world of increasing geopolitical rivalry if one can’t trust its very edifice to stand?

The EU is at the forefront of economic efforts to keep Ukraine afloat as Russia’s war of aggression rages on. Russia has made it difficult for Ukraine to export via the Black Sea and it is the EU’s duty to help Ukraine diversify its exports and export routes and also find new markets in the EU itself.

Ukraine, this global breadbasket we should be welcoming with open arms in this world of rising food prices and other agriculture production insecurities, is instead being trampled on by an agrarian lobby propped up by the EU agricultural subsidies that acts as a vote bank for those busy undermining the EU rule of law.

But no, the commission is busy seeking ‘compromises’ with these countries! How naïve is that?

How can it be that the current agriculture commissioner, who is blatantly playing his partisan game in Brussels, is still in his post? We had a trade commissioner from Ireland who was sacked during the pandemic for indelicate behaviour, but when a commissioner’s fundamental attitude undermines the very core of the EU and its interests, he is allowed to stay on?

It’s time for the commission president to now take a stand and do everything to sanction the three countries as well as a commissioner who is failing his duties.

This matter is not about mere trade, agricultural import quotas or stacks of maize. This is a foundational issue for the EU in dangerous times.

Upholding the rules is the first and foremost duty of a commission president.

Does von der Leyen want to go down in history for putting a nail in the coffin of an already overstretched and overworn ’emergency Europe’? Does she want to be the one that opens the gates for the member state far-right hyenas to enter the arena and eat off the EU carcasses?

It’s high time to wake up now, Madam von der Leyen!

This is a personal opinion on the current episode surrounding EU member state import bans of agriculture products from Ukraine by Borderlex’s founder and editor. Views expressed here are strictly her own.

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