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Member states press EU to amend sanctions to unblock Russian food shipments

Call follows criticism from African nations that lack of clarity in rules is leaving vital supplies stuck at EU ports

Leading EU member states are calling on Brussels to tweak its sanctions on Moscow to make a clearer exemption for supplies of Russian grain and fertiliser, claiming the current rules are delaying vital shipments to poor countries. Germany, France and the Netherlands are among the countries urging the European Commission to introduce an amendment clarifying the sanctions around Russia’s food exports, according to a position paper seen by the Financial Times.  African nations struggling with shortages of food and agricultural feedstocks have attacked the EU sanctions. Macky Sall, Senegal’s president and chair of the African Union, claimed the continent had become “collateral damage” in the western allies’ clampdown on Russia. While the commission has provided guidance to EU countries to permit passage of Russian grain and fertilisers, governments and transport operators said it was not robust enough to guarantee legal protection.  “The current legal situation contributes to criticism that sanctions actually hinder trade in food and fertilisers,” said the paper by the group of member states, which also includes Spain, Belgium and Portugal. The paper claims shipments are sometimes getting held in European ports for longer than is necessary, because companies are worried about taking part in transactions with Russian groups that are owned by individuals under sanctions.  Financial institutions, insurers, transporters and wholesalers are reluctant to participate in commercial dealings in the export of Russian food and fertiliser, disrupting supply chains, according to the paper. There was now an “undesirable” situation where the EU is stricter on agricultural transactions than the US and UK. “This seems in contradiction with the general EU policy on food security,” the paper stated. The commission insisted that none of its sanctions targeted trade in agricultural and food products, including wheat and fertiliser. A spokesperson pointed to guidance explaining that the transit and transfer of Russian fertilisers to non-EU countries was permitted, adding that the guidance had helped unblock a few individual consignments of fertilisers that were temporarily stuck in ports in member states. “If third countries wish to buy Russian fertilisers, there are no EU sanctions that would prohibit this — in fact, Russian exports of fertilisers to third countries have not decreased,” said the spokesperson. The African Union has complained since May that the EU is blocking shipments, leading some countries in the continent to warm to Russia’s diplomatic advances. Sall visited Moscow in June in a propaganda coup for President Vladimir Putin. Of the 35 countries that abstained in an October vote at the UN condemning Russia’s annexation of areas of Ukraine it had occupied during its invasion, about half were African. The UN’s World Food Programme has said that 345mn people face acute food insecurity in the 82 countries where the agency operates. The war in Ukraine had added 70mn to the number. The African Development Bank has said the continent is 2mn tonnes short of fertiliser ahead of the planting season, which starts shortly. “With the disruption of food supplies arising from the Russia-Ukraine war, Africa now faces a shortage of at least 30mn metric tonnes of food, especially wheat, maize, and soyabeans imported from both countries,” it added.

The EU member states behind the paper pointed to a UN-brokered deal for the delivery of tens of thousands of tonnes of fertiliser from Russian producer Uralchem that had been delayed in EU ports. Their paper asked for a clear sentence introduced in the sanctions exempting “funds or economic resources that are strictly necessary for the purchase, import, export or transport of agricultural and food products, including wheat and fertilisers, or to economic resources that are such agricultural or food products”. “It interferes with our messages on EU and member states’ initiatives on food security and especially with our initiatives on the fertilisers crisis,” the paper stated. One diplomat said there were instances of shipments getting stuck “in limbo” in ports for weeks. The EU is preparing to debate a ninth package of sanctions aimed at further penalising Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Some member states want to use this as an opportunity for amendments addressing food and fertiliser to be introduced.

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