Row over food security delaying next EU sanction package against Russia

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By Alice Tidey
Lithuania's President Gitanas Nauseda speaks with the media as he arrives for an EU summit in Brussels, Dec. 15, 2022.
Lithuania's President Gitanas Nauseda speaks with the media as he arrives for an EU summit in Brussels, Dec. 15, 2022.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Virginia Mayo

Global food security is at the centre of a row delaying the adoption of the EU's ninth package of sanctions against Russia, Euronews understands. 

Poland and Lithuania are delaying the adoption of the package, proposed earlier this month by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, over concerns it would water down some existing restrictive measures.

The two countries oppose a proposal by six EU nations with major port infrastructure -- Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain -- that would allow for money to be sent to sanctioned Russian oligarchs at the head of companies in the agricultural and food sectors, a diplomatic source from an EU country told Euronews. 

Russia is a major exporter of food products and fertilisers, which the EU has not sanctioned, to ensure these products continue to reach vulnerable countries worldwide so as to not exacerbate the global food crisis.

But the largest Russian exporters of such products -- Uralchem, Eurochem and Acron -- are controlled by Russian businessmen sanctioned by the bloc, respectively Dmitry Mazepin, Andrey Melnichenko, and Viatcheslav Moshe Kantor.

Under the sanctions, their assets have been frozen and any operator under EU jurisdiction is banned from directly or indirectly participating in transactions with them.

Many intermediaries such as financial institutions, insurers, transporters and wholesalers are therefore banned from participating in commercial flows involving these entities. 

These six EU countries are calling for a derogation to be included in the next round of sanctions "stating that asset freeze measures should not apply to funds or economic resources that are strictly necessary for the purchase, sale, import, export or transport of foodstuffs and agricultural products from or through Russia or Ukraine," according to a non-paper by the six countries seen by Euronews. 

In the non-paper, one of four rejected by Poland and Lithuania so far, they claim that the current legal situation contributes to criticism that the sanctions actually hinder the global trade of food and fertiliser products. 

They argue that partner countries including the US and the UK already have such derogations in place and that as a result, the EU is "stricter on transactions related to food and agricultural products than others", and describe themselves as "confident" that the "right derogations" would facilitate trade. 

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda told reporters upon arrival at an EU Council summit in Brussels on Thursday morning that "keeping the sanctions as strong as possible" is key.

"We are a little bit concerned about the attempts to relax the mechanism of sanctions with the cover of food security. Food security is important, but it should not be used as an excuse for a relaxation of sanctions and for some Russian oligarchs, because every day Ukrainian people are dying under Russian bombs," he added. 

A meeting of sanctions experts was on Thursday also being held in Brussels which European Council President Charles Michel said leaders were counting on "to make sure that we'll be able today to take a decision."

"I feel it's very important to give that signal," he also told reporters.

Leaders are meanwhile expected to approve an €18 billion assistance package for Ukraine for 2023.