Ukraine’s EU membership and the future of Black Sea grain

Ukraine’s EU accession negotiations started in December 2023 and membership would improve conditions for institutional investment, but those prospects must first surmount opposition from farmers already in the bloc.

Gert Bosscher was already nearing his planned retirement in his wife’s home country of Romania when Russia stormed into Ukraine in early 2022.

Geneva-based at the time, Bosscher’s career as a Black Sea trader for Glencore, Bunge and others stretches back to the mid-1980s and gave him a front row seat to the region’s evolution from a net importer to a key global grains exporter.

In the days following Russian’s initial advance, Bosscher began to receive calls asking for help moving people and grains out of Ukraine. Among them were contacts shipping Ukrainian grain through Danube River ports in Romania, to which he would relocate in December 2022 in part to work with Netherlands-headquartered shipping company Trading Line, to facilitate those movements.

Bosscher told Agri Investor the short-term opportunity that was created to ship grains through the Romanian port of Constanza by May 2022 has largely run its course, after investments of about $20 million to develop domestic alternatives, largely by private Ukrainian companies.

“In a very short period of time, terminals grew like mushrooms at all the various border points,” said Bosscher, who serves on the advisory board of privately-owned Ukrainian agriculture company Nibulon and as a consultant for GB Com Consulting, according to his LinkedIn profile.

Whereas he had been able to summon some degree of optimism in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion by highlighting past experience suggesting a likely five-year conflict that would ease Ukraine’s path towards eventual EU membership, Bosscher said he is now more pessimistic.

“Because of the elections, because of [Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor] Orbán, because of Poland, because of what you see now here in Romania [farmers’ protest] and because of the lack of response from the European Union. All they do is say they will give €100 per hectare extra. That’s no longer a common agricultural policy,” he said.

All the farmers are suffering from the low-price environment. Whether you are just next door to Ukraine or you are a farmer in France, they are all affected in exactly the same way. Nobody is explaining that or trying to put that forward. Then we get people separating and fighting for the wrong reasons. That’s the main worry.”

A historic milestone was achieved in December 2023 when the European Council decided to open accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova, but a mistaken impression among farmers that competition from Ukrainian suppliers has caused grain prices to fall in EU markets is bound to complicate the process and is already causing headaches for ministries of agriculture across Europe, Bosscher said.

Although working towards integrating Ukraine over the long-term would be positive, he added, EU policymakers’ current subsidies and support system restrict fair competition.

“I am against any government involvement in the grain trade, unless there needs to be some emergency stocks, or in weather disasters, or whatever. Then, they should just act as a bit of intervention board to create some stocks, but then they should be in the market like any other player in the market. They should not change the rules of the game halfway,” he said. “The market will always do its work.”

While select specialist and generalist firms did make their way into Ukraine’s farmland and agribusiness markets without such protections, it has long been assumed true market institutionalization could come only after membership in groupings like the EU. Recent events in and around Ukraine remind that such membership remains elusive and fraught with policy challenges that could force an evolution to the nature of the Union itself and render many of those assumptions outdated.

A complicated accession effort and land market reform proceeding boisterously despite active armed conflict do eliminate the opportunities in further developing Ukraine’s vast agricultural sector. Bosscher’s experience demonstrates how presence on the ground amid seismic shifts can be vital to accessing opportunities in and around Black Sea ag markets at the heart of geopolitical change.