Opinion: Russia’s embargo on Lithuanian dairy products – yet another lesson for Lithuania and the EU

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The Lithuania Tribune presents an opinion article by MEP Radvilė Morkūnaitė – Mikulėnienė, in which she expressed her opinion on the reaction of the Lithuanian Government and the EU to Russia’s trade war activities.

Radvilė Morkūnaitė-Mikulėnienė | DELFI, Photo by A. Didžgalvis

Radvilė Morkūnaitė-Mikulėnienė | DELFI, Photo by A. Didžgalvis

In September when discriminatory actions against Lithuanian carriers began, it was hard to predict the outcome of this situation. Reasons why the stricter inspections of trucks and even light cars were imposed and, later, Lithuanian dairy products were banned were never provided.

Russian officials did not provide explanations and those given hardly allowed to understand the matter. Answers about the situation were never received even after official requests from the European Commission (EC).

This situation became yet another lesson for Lithuania, but only if the Lithuanian Government has took the lesson properly. At such times all hopes are on the Government actions to normalize the situation. Unfortunately, such action was missing.

The Government hesitated to take immediate measures not only to find out the reasons why the stricter inspections were carried out on Lithuanian trucks as embargo on dairy products imposed, but also delayed an appeal to the EU institutions, and failed to consult with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) on the actions of Russia.

Maybe the Government was reluctant for the sake of relations with Russia; however, such behaviour was hardly compatible with that situation. Many were angered by the Prime Minister’s attitude when he commented that Lithuania has problems not with Russia, but China, meanwhile, our carriers were standing in queues to Kaliningrad for several days.

Probably the most supporting response to Lithuania’s difficulties came from the European Parliament Members: MEPs expressed support for Lithuania, urged the European Commission to address WTO, and demonstrated their solidarity on the next day by tasting Lithuanian cottage cheese desserts, which were expelled from the Russian market.

EU Commissioner Stefan Fulle and MEP Radvilė Morkūnaitė | Photo courtesy of the European Parliament

EU Commissioner Stefan Fulle and MEP Radvilė Morkūnaitė | Photo courtesy of the European Parliament

Unexpectedly, we received support also from Lithuanian product consumers in Kaliningrad area. Kaliningrad´s municipality has been asked to allow organising a protest against the Lithuanian dairy embargo, some Facebook users even changed their profile images to photos of Lithuanian dairy products (according to unofficial data, more than 2,000 of such users were counted). Resentment erupted also in Moscow, where the population missed Lithuanian dairy products in stores.

EU’s attention has worked. News that President Putin had ordered the inspection of Lithuanian trucks to be lifted came on 9 October. Indeed, now trucks are easier allowed to Kaliningrad and queues near the border are declining, but the situation is still unstable.

It is difficult to predict how long dairy product embargo will continue. Perhaps other food products will “unexpectedly” be found not complying with Russia’s standards. Statements of Russian authorities and the actual situation in trade relations with Russia are the reason for such fears at the moment.

These fears are confirmed by the recent news that soon Estonian dairy and fish products import ban may be imposed. Import bans are still imposed on Ukraine and Moldova, the Eastern Partnership programme members seeking Free Trade Agreements with the EU.

Russian trade restrictions this year has hit Greece (limitation on dairy and meat products), Poland (limited frozen meat imports), and Germany (restricted imports of animal products), although, in these cases, the parties have at least been informed officially.

Russia’s Membership in the WTO – the club of countries, which aims at the elimination of trade barriers between them – was mostly welcomed optimistically. It was expected that this will encourage Russia to “play” by the international rules of trade and would solve some trade issues, decrease import taxes, increase opportunities for export. Unfortunately, the disappointment came pretty soon. Problems remained, and some of them even increased.

DELFI, Drawing by R. Daukantas

DELFI, Drawing by R. Daukantas

One of the most debated issues is on Russia’s recycling fee for imported used cars. Russia charges second-hand cars, and thereby encourages the purchase of local production cars. In addition, the tax is applied only to foreign companies, which reduces the competitiveness of EU enterprises. Such regulation harms also Lithuanian companies that exports used cars.

Due to Russia’s protectionist measures, also the EU potato growers are suffering. On 1 July temporal restriction on potato imports from the EU to Russia was imposed, based on the fact that pests were detected in the potatoes exported from one EU Member State. This has hit Lithuanian potatoes growers, who sell one-third of their production in the Russian market, hard. Similar restrictions can be found in other areas.

Although Russia tends to raise requirements for others, they are reluctant to comply with their own commitments.

The co-operation with Russia is important to the EU and Lithuania, but we want to have a reliable and predictable trade partner. I hope that this experience will encourage each of us to look more carefully and objectively at the neighbouring country, because expectation for pragmatic relations with this neighbour proves to be not always possible and realistic.

At the same time we should realise that it is pointless to rely on short-term promises of this great neighbour, whether regarding Lithuanian dairy export or discount on imported gas.

*** Radvilė Morkūnaitė-Mikulėnienė is a Member of European Parliament, belonging to the European People’s Party (EPP) group.

The views expressed in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Lithuania Tribune.

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