After more than a year of surprisingly solid European unity in support of Ukraine, grains of discord are piling up in the barn of Robert Vieru, a Romanian farmer with 500 tons of wheat and 250 tons of sunflower seeds now sitting unsold because of cut-price Ukrainian competition.
A glut of Ukrainian cereals and other produce has nearly halved the value for the results of Mr. Vieru’s labors and left farmers across Eastern and Central Europe — and their governments, most of which face elections this year or next — caught between solidarity with Ukraine and their own survival.
“I feel sad for them but my heart breaks for myself,” Mr. Vieru said of Ukrainians living across the nearby border in Romania’s Danube River delta, as he opened the sliding door of a concrete barn, filled to the brim with last year’s unsold harvest.
Prices have been driven so low by a flood of cheap food from Ukraine, he said, that selling would mean earning less than he paid to produce his crops.
Mr. Vieru’s plight, shared by farmers in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Bulgaria, flow from the unintended consequences of good intentions gone awry.
Market forces, turbocharged by profiteering, have turned an ambitious effort by the European Union to help Ukraine export its harvest and ease what the United Nations described last year as an “unprecedented global hunger crisis” into a source of political division and economic distress in Europe’s formerly communist eastern lands.
The mess has not erased strong public support for Ukraine, at least not yet, but it has created an opening for far-right groups that favor Russia, generated serious frictions within the European bloc and soured moods in a region that had been a bastion of mostly unflagging support for Ukraine. A proposal from the European Commission of 100 million euros to compensate farmers has done little to assuage the tensions.
With the exception of Hungary, whose populist prime minister, Viktor Orban, has often cozied up to Russia, the countries hit hardest by the competition are among Ukraine’s most stalwart European allies. Poland, Romania and Slovakia have provided weapons and military training.
Over the past week, however, all five nations have imposed tight restrictions on importing Ukrainian grain, with only Romania stopping short of an outright ban.
“We are the last man standing,” Romania’s transport minister, Sorin Grindeanu, said in an interview.
Moscow, meanwhile, has threatened to not renew its own Black Sea grain deal if the Group of 7 moves to block exports to Russia. On Monday, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, met with António Guterres, the U.N. secretary general, to discuss that deal, which expires on May 18.
When the European bloc announced last June that it was lifting tariffs and other barriers on Ukrainian farm products, the move was welcomed as a bold response to Russia’s blockade and bombardment of Ukraine’s main ports on the Black and Azov Seas. The disruption had raised fears that, cut off from Ukraine’s breadbasket, countries in Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia might starve.
To bypass blocked sea routes, Europe devised an elaborate program to create alternative pathways from Ukraine involving roads, Danube Delta barges and trains.
The plan largely worked. It helped get millions of tons of Ukrainian grain onto the global market, easing prices and averting hunger in other countries. But the flood of Ukrainian foodstuffs into nearby countries like Romania, itself a major grain producer, hammered local farmers. They found themselves squeezed out of transport hubs and unable to compete with supplies from Ukraine, free of the costly restrictions and quality-control demands imposed by the European Union.
“We can’t compete at these prices. Nobody can compete,” said Bogdan Dediu, the owner of a family farm in Galati County on the Danube. “Of course we want to help Ukraine. But we also have families and children to support.” Unlike Mr. Vieru, he sold his crops soon after last year’s harvest — just before prices spiraled downward — but still sees himself “as collateral damage of the war.”
While prices fell, transport and other costs rose as Ukrainian grain poured into the main river port for the Galati County farming region. Shipments of Ukrainian grain last year through Galati port increased more than 90 times compared with 2021.
The port had rarely handled Ukrainian grain until the European Union put two million euros into repairing a long-disused, wide-gauge railway so that trains from Ukraine and Moldova, which use different tracks, could transport grain directly.
From there, most of the grain was supposed to be moved by barge through inland waterways to the Black Sea port of Constanta for shipment to Africa and elsewhere.
Much of it seeped into Romania’s domestic market.
Marcela-Daniela Costea, the director of Galati river port, said large amounts of grain had been stored for weeks and even months by traders in dockside silos controlled by outside companies. “I have no idea what happened to it,” she said.
Florin Ciolacu, the executive director of the Romanian Farmers’ Club, a lobbying group, said his country’s farmers had lost 3.5 billion euros since February last year because of low prices and the higher costs of production and transport.
Of the European Union’s efforts to help Ukraine, he said: “The intentions were good but the results were very bad.” As much as half of the grain designated for transit through Romania under the European program, he noted, had stayed in the country.
By selling Ukrainian grain locally, traders also added to their profits by avoiding shipping costs and long waits at overloaded ports.
Mr. Vieru, the farmer, cursed traders’ pursuit of profit for ruining his business but added that he couldn’t really blame them: “If I have honey on my fingers I of course lick them,” he said, using a Romanian phrase describing irresistible temptation.
Until Russia invaded in February last year, Ukraine sent hardly any grain to Romania. Over the past 14 months, it has sent 20 million tons there, according to Mr. Grindeanu, the transport minister. The impact on prices, he said, had “created a huge scandal” and left farmers “very angry.”
They staged nationwide protests on April 7, using tractors to block traffic in several cities and a border crossing with Ukraine. More are in the works. Polish farmers have also demonstrated, prompting the resignation in early April of Poland’s agriculture minister.
In a region of Europe latticed with historical grievances and dormant quarrels over territory, the flood of Ukrainian grain, if left unchecked, could wash away political dikes erected in revulsion at Russian aggression.
Romanian nationalist politicians, aided by social media accounts sympathetic to and, some believe, controlled by Russia, stoked an uproar earlier this year after Ukraine announced that it had, in violation of a 1948 agreement, unilaterally dredged a small canal, the Bystre, at the Danube River’s mouth to make it navigable for ships carrying grain.
“We understand they are in a difficult situation. There is a war. But the way they did this was not smart,” the transport minister said.
For Ms. Costea, the Galati port director, the dredging not only showed “disrespect” but also hurt business. It helped open up a Danube channel that had not been navigable for many vessels, shifting traffic and revenue from Galati to Ukrainian-controlled river ports.
“They are living a nightmare over there. That is obvious,” Ms. Costea said. But, she added, Romania also has interests that need to be taken into account. “Everybody has just been interested in increasing their own profits,” she said.
Poland, Romania and Slovakia have not retreated from providing weapons for the war against Russia, but domestic political and economic interests, often at odds with the those of Ukraine, are asserting themselves as elections loom in all three countries.
“We must help Ukraine until the defeat of Russia. This is not negotiable,” the transport minister said. “But we have to help our own people, too” — and prevent radical nationalists from exploiting discontent ahead of a parliamentary and presidential elections next year, he added. “If the nationalists have a field for speculation they will increase their support.”
Scrambling to calm tempers and reverse what it denounced as “illegal” unilateral bans on the import of Ukrainian grains by Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Bulgaria, the European Union’s executive arm, the Commission, this week proposed what amounted to a prohibition, albeit temporary, of its own.
Besieged by complaints that it had been blind to the impact, the Commission insisted that “it was well aware that there were tensions affecting agricultural communities” and offered 100 million euros to compensate farmers, warning that only Russia would benefit from any inflammation of their anger.
But with this year’s planting season for sunflowers and corn about to start and much of last year’s harvest still unsold, farmers are getting desperate.
At a big farm run by the family-owned Dorin Group in Galati County, a hanger that is usually empty this time of year is now filled with 1,000 tons of unsold corn. Storing large amounts of grain posed no serious problem during winter but that will change soon when temperatures rise and insects arrive.
Gabriela Buruiana, the farm’s commercial director, said that in the past traders “used to call every day” asking if she had grain to sell “but this year nobody calls.”
“They have got all the grain they need from Ukraine at really low prices,” she said. “They are silent.”
Delia Marinescu contributed reporting from Bucharest.