Protest at Polish-Ukrainian border escalates as farmers join in

Protest at Polish-Ukrainian border escalates as farmers join in
Truckers protest at the Polish-Ukrainian border. / bne IntelliNews
By Wojciech Kosc in Warsaw November 29, 2023

A farmers’ protest group joined in the ongoing blockade of the Polish-Ukrainian border on November 27, escalating the protest that has pitted Kyiv and Warsaw against each other.

Farmers from a group called Oszukana Wies – meaning “Deceived Countryside” – are now blocking a border crossing in Medyka round the clock, only letting humanitarian and military traffic through. They demand subsidies for corn production, access to liquidity loans, and favourable changes to agricultural tax.

Polish truckers, in turn, protest against the liberalised rules for Ukrainian transport companies under the EU-Ukraine agreement. They demand the reinstatement of international transport permits, which an agreement between the EU and Ukraine abolished in July to support Ukraine's economy amid Russia's blockade of the country’s naval trade routes. 

Polish trucking companies argue that the liberalised rules are putting them out of business, as Ukrainians offer services at lower prices without adhering to EU work standards.

Protesters have said this week they are not ruling out escalating the blockade to cover all eight Polish-Ukrainian border crossings.

"We are here to ensure that the fruits of our work as carriers do not go to waste. We want to be not just objects but subjects in this relationship, especially in the face of the European Commission's decision, which claims the right to omnipotence," Rafal Mekler, co-organiser of the truckers' protest – and also a politician with the far-right Konfederacja party – told Polsat News.

The blockades have led to a significant backlog at the crossings and – Ukrainians charge – caused delays in military and humanitarian transport to Ukraine. 

The deaths of two Ukrainian drivers in the border region further heightened tensions even though Polish police said that one of them was not linked to the extended waiting times and difficult conditions at the crossings.

Poland also criticises Ukraine's electronic queue system, which, according to Polish truckers, is being used by the Ukrainian side to slow down the movement of EU-registered vehicles while favouring Ukrainian ones.

The political backdrop adds complexity, as a new coalition government, led by Donald Tusk, is expected to take office only in mid-December. The outgoing Law and Justice (PiS0 administration is in charge until then.

“I absolutely refuse to accept responsibility for the situation at the border by the new majority, which has no influence on it. PiS ministers are responsible for this,” Pawel Kowal, an MP for the Tusk’s party Civic Coalition told Polish media on November 28.

The international dimension of the protest is emerging, with transport organisations from several countries urging the EU to reconsider the current agreement with Ukraine. The EU, however, has refused to renegotiate, citing legal constraints. Ukraine argues that restoring the permit system would impact its economy and war effort.

The head of the Slovak Association of Carriers (UNAS), Stanislav Skala, said on November 28 that UNAS will block the main Slovak-Ukrainian border crossing from December 1 if steps are not taken by that time to limit competition from Ukrainian drivers. 

The economic fallout of the blockade is substantial, with the National Bank of Ukraine projecting damages of $400mn. Road transport, comprising 35% of Ukrainian exports and 70% of imports, is now severely disrupted, according to the NBU. 

The new Polish parliament will discuss the situation on the border on November 29. The EU is taking on the problem during the European Council meeting on December 4.