Ukrainian–Polish Tensions Grow Over Unfair Competition on EU’s Agri-Food Market

Ella Kietlinska
By Ella Kietlinska
February 24, 2024Europe
Ukrainian–Polish Tensions Grow Over Unfair Competition on EU’s Agri-Food Market
Polish farmers protest over price pressures, taxes and green regulation, grievances shared by farmers across Europe and against the import of agricultural produce and food products from Ukraine, as they gather with tractors near Sulechow, Poland, on Feb. 20, 2024. (Wladyslaw Czulak/Agencja via Reuters)

A Ukrainian–Polish dispute over cheap imports of agricultural products from Ukraine escalates as Polish farmers block border crossings into Poland to protest the unfair competition and EU’s climate change measures, both endangering their livelihood.

Polish farmers have stepped up their protests this week by blocking almost all traffic with Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told reporters on Friday that Ukrainian grain, which is currently being blocked at the border by Polish farmers protesting EU’s policies, is not “intended for the Polish market.

Mr. Zelenskyy said at a press conference in Lviv, Ukraine, “that Ukrainian grain does not go to the Polish market. … We are willing and will do everything to resolve this issue,” according to a statement.

Mr. Zelenskyy instructed the Ukrainian government in his speech on Thursday to come to the Ukrainian–Polish border by Feb. 24, according to a statement.

He also asked Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, Polish President Andrzej Duda, and European Union officials to come to the border to discuss the farmers’ protests. Mr. Zelenskyy added that he is ready to join the talks as well.

Mr. Tusk said on Thursday the Polish and Ukrainian governments would meet in Warsaw on March 28, expressing his hope that by then, the ongoing technical talks at the ministerial level would lead to a fruitful meeting, but he did not accept Mr. Zelenskyy’s request for urgent talks this week.

Farmers across Europe have been demonstrating against constraints placed on them by European Union measures to tackle climate change, as well as unfair competition, particularly from Ukraine after the EU waived duties on Ukrainian food imports to help Ukraine after Russia invaded it.

Polish Farmers’ Protests

Protests by Polish farmers sparked anger in neighboring Ukraine on Feb. 20, as Kyiv called on the European Commission to take robust action after demonstrators blockaded the border and opened railway carriages to let grain spill out.

Reuters reported that television footage showed protesters opening railway carriages to allow grain to pour onto the tracks at the Medyka border crossing in Poland.

Ukraine’s Agriculture Minister Mykola Solskyi said the grain was headed to Germany and would not have entered the Polish market.

Adrian Wawrzyniak, a spokesman for the Solidarity farmers’ trade union, said in an interview with the Polish radio station that farmers who were pouring out the grain transported by railway through the border showed that it was not really in transit to other countries as it was reloaded and sent to domestic consignees.

Warsaw has been a staunch supporter of Kyiv in its fight to repel a full-scale Russian invasion launched in 2022, but protests from farmers complaining of unfair competition have strained ties that were already on edge after truckers blocked border crossings around the turn of the year.

Tuesday’s protests from farmers marked an escalation from previous demonstrations, with a near-total blockade of all Ukrainian border crossings and disruption at ports and on roads nationwide.

NTD Photo
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks during a joint press conference with the European Commission president following their talks in Kyiv on Nov. 4, 2023. (Anatoli Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images)

Mr. Zelenskyy decried the protesting Polish farmers in his Monday speech.

“Near Kupiansk, close to the Russian border, where enemy artillery does not cease, news from the border with Poland seems outright mocking,” he said.

According to Mr. Zelenskyy, Ukraine exports only 5 percent of its grains through the Polish border. “So in reality, the situation is not about grain, but rather about politics,” he said.

NTD Photo
European Council President Donald Tusk addresses a press conference after receiving British Prime Minister Theresa May’s formal notice of the UK’s intention to leave the bloc under Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty by Britain’s ambassador to the EU, in Brussels on March 29, 2017. (Emmanuel Dunand /AFP/Getty Images)

Polish Government Stance

Mr. Tusk pointed out at the press conference on Thursday that military, humanitarian, and medical aid to assist Ukraine in countering Russian attack is unquestionable and “kind of non-negotiable.”

To fully guarantee that this aid will travel to Ukraine without delay, Poland will include border crossings with Ukraine and certain sections of roads and railways on the list of critical infrastructure, Mr. Tusk said.

The Solidarity farmers’ trade union that organized and coordinated farmers’ protests denied that protesters were obstructing military and humanitarian transports through the Polish-Ukrainian border, according to a statement.

“We firmly declare that humanitarian aid, military aid, and ARD vehicles [vehicles carrying dangerous goods] are allowed through all blockades on an ongoing basis, without waiting in line, and we are not aware of any cases of such transports being blocked,” Tomasz Obszański president of the trade union said in the statement.

Mr. Wawrzyniak told radio that this government’s move could lead to stopping farmers’ protests at the border. He also said that the union plans to move the protests to Warsaw, Poland’s capital, hoping they will be more effective there.

“The second issue is how to protect Polish farmers and the Polish market against the negative effects of trade liberalization, i.e., opening the border to duty-free trade in agricultural products,” Mr. Tusk pointed out.

He said that the Polish government will look for protective solutions for Polish farmers, using both national means and continued negotiations with Ukraine and European institutions to offset the negative consequences of trade liberalization with Ukraine as much as possible.

How EU Reacts to Farmers’ Protests

Norbert Lins, a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) and Chairman of the parliamentarian committee on agriculture, proposed immediate actions that the European Commission, EU’s executive, must take to tackle the difficulties that European farmers have been facing, according to a statement.

Mr. Lins sent a letter to EU Agricultural Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski on Feb. 20 proposing “concrete actions” such as procedural and regulatory changes, as well as some changes to EU trading practices to improve their fairness, the statement said.

Mr. Lins also requested in the letter to assess the European Green Deal legislation related to agriculture to determine the need for any exceptions, transition periods, or alternative proposals, including maintenance of the status quo.

The European Green Deal is the EU’s initiative to fight climate change which the EU considers “an existential threat to Europe and the world,” according to an EU’s policy statement.

Mr. Wojciechowski, the Polish member of the European Commission, said in his letter sent in response to Mr. Lins that the union’s “trade and climate policies” are the main causes of farmers’ discontent, according to Euractiv.

He wrote in his letter: “Stop imports, Green Deal out!” and these words sparked attention and comment in some media, Mr. Wojciechowski said in a statement issued on Friday to clarify his remark.

“‘Stop imports, Green Deal out’ is a summary of the demands that I have heard from farmers over the course of several meetings and interactions in recent weeks. It is not a statement of my position,” Mr. Wojciechowski explained in the statement, adding that he regrets using the phrase.

The commissioner said that “farmers must be protected against the significant impacts of trade liberalization with Ukraine and any unfair competition in our trade agreements.”

He admitted that some Green Deal measures may make many farmers feel threatened, but in his view, the European Commission responds to farmers’ demands. For example, commission president Ursula von der Leyen withdrew a few weeks ago the proposal to reduce the use of pesticides, Mr. Wojciechowski said in the statement.

NTD Photo
Cars queue towards Poland at the Krakovets–Korcheva border crossing point in Krakovets, Ukraine, on Aug. 16, 2022. (Roman Baluk/AP Photo)

Unfair Competition

Before the Russian invasion, Ukraine exported most of its agricultural goods through Black Sea ports to destinations in Asia and Africa, according to the Center for Eastern Studies (OSW), a Poland-based think tank.

After the war broke out, Russia blocked Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea, which forced Ukraine to develop alternate overland routes through EU countries, the OSW report said.

To support the embattled country, the EU temporarily suspended customs duties on Ukrainian exports, including agricultural products, and that significantly increased its exports of those goods to the EU.

Agricultural exports from Ukraine primarily flow by land to its neighboring EU countries because of relatively low transportation costs that can yield more profit, while exports to more distant destinations increase transportation costs, thus reducing profits, the OSW report said

Moreover, EU farmers are obligated to comply with the strict union’s phytosanitary and animal welfare standards, which increases their production costs and makes their agricultural goods less competitive.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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