Polish ’Agro-Transformers’ against Ukrainian grain and, Polish PM Tusk?

4 min read

Those tractors are actually Transformers, aren’t they?’ To our family’s general amusement, my 5-year old son asked me this question when he saw on TV a demonstration of Polish farmers against the uncontrolled influx of Ukrainian agro-food products into Poland. ’Perhaps, dear, perhaps…’, I replied hesitantly after a few seconds of laughter, while images of various types of Autobots from the fictional universe of Transformers flashed through my mind.

A little later, after watching the news about farmers’ protests across Europe, in particular in the Eastern Member States of the European Union and, inspired by the vivid imagination of a 5-year-old kid, a disturbing question came to my mind: is it normal that ’Transformers’ are needed to protect Polish farmers from Ukrainian grain? Why is the Polish government so inactive? It should be added at once that, from the point of view of Kyiv, the blockade of Polish farmers is seen as the greatest ever damage caused to Ukrainian grain.

Which position is more justified?

Problems originate in 2022, with the suspension of import duties on Ukrainian goods after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. According to an EU decision in June 2022, customs duties on Ukrainian imports, including agro-food imports, have temporarily been lifted which led to the inflow of Ukrainian grain in CEE countries. Ukrainian grain has soon become an acute problem – a kind of hot potato –  that worried not only local farmers but also their governments. The Ukrainian grain import not only undercut local prices but also led to chaos in the markets. Last September, together with Hungary and Slovakia, the then conservative Polish government led by Mateusz Morawiecki imposed a unilateral restriction on the Ukrainian grain import which caused tensions between Poland and Ukraine in several fields of bilateral relations, including arms deliveries.

When Donald Tusk formed a government following last year’s elections in Poland, he was quickly to declare that all his efforts would be aimed at restoring good neighbourly relations between the two countries. Those experts who predicted that Poland’s growing assertiveness in its relation with Ukraine would not disappear after the election turned out to be right. What has happened so far signals that Poland’s new Prime Minister have reached a dead end – relations between the two countries have not improved but on the contrary, have fallen to a historically low point.

When Tusk tried to tacle this situation, with his ’calming’ words – ’Blockade is not an appropriate method of defending farmers’ interests’ – he only added further oil on the fire and a new wave of protests against Ukrainian import grain started again. In one incident on 11 February, the protesters spilled Ukrainian grain from standing trucks on the road. As one might have assumed, this was just the beginning. Following that 18 February, Polish farmers had attempted to block the movement of freight trains from Ukraine, the same day, they managed to block a Ukrainian passenger train, with 260 passengers on board. ’Blocking the border is a direct threat to the security of a country that is trying to defend itself’, Ukrainian deputy PM and Minister for Infrastructure Olexandr Kubrakov said, adding that Russian special services are stirring up an artificial conflict between Poland and Ukraine. He didn’t give any explanation to this assessment.

On 20 February, the protests in Poland entered a new stage. Since then, there have been several serious incidents involving blockade of border checkpoints and highway exits. On the night of 24-25 February, Ukrainian grain exports suffered the most extensive damage since the beginning of the farmers’ protests when a total of 160 tonnes of Ukrainian grain was spilled by unidentified persons. The cargo was in transit to the port of Gdansk. Ukraine called the incident ’sabotage’, an ’act of vandalism’, a ’shameful and barbaric act’. ’How long will the government and the Polish police allow this vandalism to continue?’ – Ukrainian minister Kubrakov asked on X.

According to a report by the Polish Centre For Eastern Studies (OSW) published last autumn, the sharp increase in imports of grain from Ukraine has proved to be a huge problem for Poland. To avoid further protests by the Polish farmers, the government in Warsaw must reach a compromise not only with them, but also with Ukraine. As the farmers’s protests continue and become increasingly violent and destructive, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk is not only facing a major challenge, but has also found himself at a crossroads.

For Kyiv, it’s crucial to maintain the export of agricultural products, including grain, at the highest possible level since this is Ukraine’s main source of income which contributes greatly to the country’s defence budget. This position may explain why Kyiv is afraid of a halt to Ukrainian grain exports but what’s the excuse for Donald Tusk’s hesitation?

In light of the farmers’ protests, Tusk seems to be in a very difficult situation given that his coalition government includes agrarian parties, not to mention the fact that he considers himself a pro-Ukrainian European politician. He’s facing an immense challenge to find a solution that would meet the interest of Polish farmers and would be beneficial for Polish-Ukrainian relations. It’s easy to see that these two options are mutually exclusive, though a solution to this issue would be essential for the good functioning of supply chains in Poland and the entire EU internal market.

If Tusk fails to find the right solution or makes the wrong decision, it can easily lead to the distrust of voters. No matter how easy the choice to make between local Polish grain and Ukrainian import grain may seem, for Donald Tusk, it’s obviously been not so obvious.

Given the latest developments – still using the ’Transformers’ analogy, as Tusk’s cabinet has failed to do its job, Polish ’Optimus Prime’ is marching to Poland’s borders with his Autobots to protect Polish national interests and fight against ’Ukraine-Megatron’ – the Polish government may have come too late with Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski’s 27 February announcement suggesting that the EU should bring back trade restrictions on the imports of Ukrainian food products which were in place before the war. After long weeks of farmers’ protest, Polish PM Donald Tusk was finally forced to announce on the last day of February that he didn’t rule out the possibility of a temporary border closure to prevent further inflow of Ukrainian grain into Poland.

What lessons can be learned from this case which is not yet over? No Polish government, regardless of whether it is led by a pro-Ukrainian PM, should hesitate to give priority to Polish national interests since every minute of indecision could be seen as a betrayal of the country. While the issue of Ukrainian grain imports is still an open question, it seems quite clear that the Polish ’Agro-Transformers’ have proved to be effective not only with regard to Ukrainian grain, but also against Prime Minister Tusk.

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