Editorial: The Unexpected Correlation of Size, Volume, Grain and Dogs


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I think something instructive may have come into closer focus in the standoff between the European Union and Hungary over Ukrainian grain, and it concerns the not-insignificant issues of respect and power.

Years ago, Viktor Orbán said a small country has to be a loud country if it wants to have its opinions heard. I’m extrapolating as well as paraphrasing here, but bear with me when I say this point of view may well explain the Hungarian Prime Minister’s willingness to pick a fight. If a country the size of Hungary was to simply roll over to have its belly tickled every time the EU walked past, it would get nowhere, he might have argued.

There is an undeniable logic to that line of thinking. But at the risk of stretching this canine analogy to breaking point, it is much easier to tolerate a friendly dog than an aggressive one. You can circle back to respect at this point, but what does the dog that snarls at you actually win if you decide you aren’t going to feed it? I think I really should move on from that metaphor at this point.

Remember Orbán’s words about size and volume? Hungary and Poland had a natural ally when the United Kingdom was still a member of the European Union, a country that was inclined to Euroskeptisim, wasn’t afraid to say so, and, as the fourth or fifth biggest economy in the world at the time, had to be listened to. With Britain having Brexited, Hungary and Poland must lead the EU Awkward Squad. While they have not been lone voices in complaining about what is, in effect, the unintended dumping of Ukrainian grain on their markets, they have been among the loudest. And with good reason: street protests by farmers in Poland have already resulted in one agriculture minister being removed from office.

When Poland and Hungary, countries that agree on just about everything except the prosecution of the war in Ukraine, banned imports, having decided they had had enough of the EU batting back their requests to look again at the grain issue, the initial response from the European Commission appeared almost angry. Bloomberg News cited the commission spokeswoman for trade and agriculture, Miriam Garcia Ferrer, as saying on Sunday, April 16: “It’s important to underline that trade policy is of EU exclusive competence and, therefore, unilateral actions are not acceptable. In such challenging times, it is crucial to coordinate and align all decisions within the EU.”

Fast-forward 24 hours, and Slovakia (not exactly a big country, but indicative of a growing trend) has joined Hungary and Poland in announcing a ban on Ukrainian grain imports, and the commission has markedly softened its rhetoric. “We are working now on a second package of measures where we would continue supporting these countries that are being affected by the inputs from Ukraine,” a commission spokesperson said during the EU executive’s daily press conference on April 17.

Perhaps the timing of these events is coincidental. Perhaps not. Either way, it does seem striking. It is worth recalling that the measures which led to Ukraine’s grain swamping neighboring markets at lower prices came from a desire to ensure the grain got out of the war-torn country, raised some cash for it, and, most importantly, was shipped to those in absolute need of it, not least in Africa. That the countries around Ukraine all experienced problems and wanted the EU to look again, not at global shipments but at the effect in domestic markets, seems to have been ignored for a long time. If Poland and Hungary were not the top dogs (sorry, it seems I cannot help myself) of the Awkward Squad, would their concerns have been heard sooner? Perhaps not, but it is worth thinking about.

Then again, perhaps the EC could have considered earlier that Hungary, Poland, and all those neighbors of Ukraine had a point worth listening to.

Robin Marshall


This editorial was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of April 21, 2023.

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