Farmer protests grip Poland

Farmer protests grip Poland
“The end of hospitality, you ungrateful sons of bitches,” reads this banner. / bne IntelliNews
By Wojciech Kosc in Warsaw February 21, 2024

“Putin, tidy up Ukraine, Brussels, and our rulers,” was one banner a protesting Polish farmer fixed on his tractor on February 20 as farmer rallies blocked border crossings with Ukraine and key intersections of Polish highways. 

Polish farmers want no agriculture imports from Ukraine, saying the Ukrainian farm produce is undercutting their livelihoods and putting consumers’ health and lives in danger. The protests on February 20 were a culmination of weeks of tension, with farmers pledging more and more intense rallying is to come unless the government meets their demands.

Like their peers elsewhere in Europe, Polish farmers also say no to climate and environment restrictions that the EU is rolling out as part of its Green Deal strategy to make farming more resilient to climate change and less impactful on ecosystems.

The protesters blocked all Poland-Ukraine border crossings, major roads in and out of key cities, and highway intersections. In Medyka on the border with Ukraine, the protesters spilled Ukrainian grain from a freight train, a second such incident in recent days.

That caused outrage in Ukraine. “We strongly condemn the spilling of Ukrainian grain by protesters in Medyka,” Ukrainian Ambassador to Poland Vasyl Zvarych said on X. 

Zvarych also said that spilling grain marked a “lack of respect for the work of Ukrainian farmers under Russian aggression. Shame and disgrace, gentlemen!”

In response to the Polish protests, Ukrainian carriers began a protest on the border with Poland on the same day as the Polish rallies. Ukrainian drivers demanded thorough inspections of Polish trucks entering Ukraine,” Polish Radio reported.

"Either we all go or we all stand in queues and wait until Polish farmers reach an agreement with the government and the EU,” a deputy head of the International Union of Ukrainian Carriers in an interview with Polskie Radio.

Geopolitics vs politicking
The Polish government – in office only since mid-December – is under mounting pressure to deal with the protests and not let domestic politics compromise its support for Ukraine. Warsaw says that Ukraine is fighting for Europe - otherwise countries like the Baltic states or Poland will face up to Russian aggression next.

But domestic political strife is interfering with the strategic outlook on the war in the context of local elections coming up this April. In the elections, the new government will seek to solidify support on the municipal level, including in the rural regions.

In that vein, Poland’s Agriculture Minister Czeslaw Siekierski said in a letter to farmers that the government wants to "develop a bilateral agreement with Ukraine that would extend market protection to other sensitive products: sugar, poultry, eggs, soft fruits, honey, apple juice, and oils” - in addition to those currently under restrictions like cereals, rapeseed, or sunflower.

The minister cautioned against the complete closure of the border that some of the protest groups advocate. 

“It may result in the suspension of Polish exports of agricultural goods to Ukraine, which may result in the elimination of many jobs,” Siekierski said. 

Poland had a €3.5bn trade surplus with Ukraine last year. In agricultural and food trade, however, there was a deficit of €656mn.

Roaming the shopping malls
But tensions are visibly rising on the top political level between Warsaw and Ukraine. 

After Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said that protests were “eroding [Poland’s] solidarity” with Ukraine, Polish deputy Agriculture Minister Michał Kołodziejczak said in an angry response that Zelensky had better focus on “building an army”.

“If [Zelenskiy] still has a problem building the army, let him come and park a bus at a shopping mall in Warsaw or another city. His army is roaming the shops here in Poland,” Kolodziejczak told news website Wirtualna Polska.

Meanwhile, Polish authorities said they will seek to hold the creator of the controversial banner to account.

"The banner was immediately removed and secured by the police," Poland's Home Affairs Minister Marcin Kierwinski said on X.

"There will be no consent to such criminal activities," the minister added.

Russia’s grain exports soar
While Poland is blocking border with Ukraine, the EU is increasing grain imports from Russia.

The volume of grain exports by Ukraine since the beginning of the 2023/2024 marketing year as was just over 27mn tonnes, a fall 10.7% less y/y, the Ukrainian Agriculture Ministry said on February 19. 

At the same time, according to Eurostat, purchases of Russian grain by the EU increased 22% per month and 900% throughout 2023. While Ukraine remained the leading grain supplier to the EU, its market share decreased by 25% over the year to 1.2mn tonnes.

Meanwhile, from the beginning of the new trading season to December 1, Russia shipped 2.23mn tonness of grain and legumes to the EU, a jump of 100% on annual terms.