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Poland: Tusk backs Ukraine, yet allays farmers fears

February 23, 2024

PM Donald Tusk wants to support Ukraine but needs to address Polish farmers' concerns over Ukrainian grain imports.

Tractors with red-and-white signs and Polish flags drive along a street. Buildings and the cranes in the port of Gdansk can be seen in the background, Poland, February 20, 2024
The placards on these tractors on a street in Gdansk read 'From the mouse to the emperor, everyone lives off the farmer'Image: Lukasz Glowala/REUTERS

Donald Tusk made no attempt to hide his irritation when he spoke to the press on Thursday. His center-left government is currently making a huge effort to restore the rule of law, which was eroded by the national-conservative PiS government that ruled Poland from 2015 to 2023.

Calm in other domestic areas would help matters enormously. But the nation's farmers have other ideas.

After an extended break, Polish farmers on Tuesday once again began blocking roads across the country and approach roads leading to border crossings with Ukraine. In some cases, the already tense situation escalated.

At the Medyka border crossing, for instance, grain from a Ukrainian truck was spilled on the road. In Silesia in southern Poland, a tractor was seen flying a Soviet flag and bearing a banner that read "Putin — Put Ukraine, Brussels and our rulers in order."

A painting on the side of a trailer attached to a tractor shows the figure of Death wrapped in a cape bearing the EU flag looming over a tractor and a farmer kneeling on the ground. In the background one can see a long line of tractors with Polish flags, Poland, February 20, 2024
The Polish farmers are not just protesting about food imports from Ukraine but also about EU policies Image: Karol Serewis/SOPA/ZUMA/picture alliance

The Foreign Ministry in Warsaw strongly condemned the incident, and the Public Prosecutor's Office has launched an investigation into the farmer in question for totalitarian propaganda and incitement to hate.

Tusk seeks de-escalation

To avoid any further escalation, Tusk is trying to reconcile the interests of both sides. He reiterated his support for Ukraine, but also expressed understanding for the farmers.

"We should keep the two issues separate in domestic and international debates," he said. "There's no question about supporting Ukraine in its fight against Russia. That's not negotiable. However, we should also protect Polish farmers and the Polish market against the negative consequences of opening the borders for agricultural products."

At the same time, Tusk roundly condemned the pro-Russian provocations: "We cannot allow those who actively serve Putin's propaganda to exploit the farmers' protests on the Ukrainian border. Any such support for Putin's narrative is treason," he said.

The prime minister went on to say that he intended to designate the crossings on the Poland–Ukraine border as "critical infrastructure" to ensure the uninterrupted flow of military goods and humanitarian aid to Ukraine — a move that would ensure better protection of the border crossings in the event of a blockade.

'Technical talks' instead of symbolism

A meeting at the border suggested by the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will not, however, take place. Zelenskyy had proposed that the prime ministers and presidents of both countries and European Union officials should meet in the short term.

"We do not need symbolism in our relations, no bombastic gestures of solidarity," said the Polish PM. Instead, the Polish and Ukrainian governments will meet in Warsaw on March 28 once talks on a technical level have taken place.

Poland's Prime Minister Donald Tusk (left) and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (right) sit on wooden chairs in front of Polish and Ukrainian flags during their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, January 22, 2024
Prime Minister Donald Tusk (left) is adamant that Poland will continue to support Ukraine in its fight against RussiaImage: Ukrainian Presidential Office/AP Photo/picture alliance

Tusk also said he intends to address the "necessity of correcting the EU's policy on Ukraine" at his meeting with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Warsaw on Friday.

A year's protest about food imports

The conflict about food imports from Ukraine has been going on for about a year now. Polish farmers claim that a large proportion of the Ukrainian grain passing through Poland on its way to Asia and Africa actually stayed in Poland — with devastating consequences for the country's farmers.

Prices tanked, and Polish farmers could not sell their produce because their production costs are higher than those of their Ukrainian counterparts. They also see the EU's Green Deal as an additional burden.

After the first wave of protests last year, the Polish government imposed a ban on the import of Ukrainian grain in April 2023. Brussels responded to pressure from countries in Central and Eastern Europe — including Poland — by imposing temporary restrictions on agricultural imports from Ukraine.

When the embargo expired on September 15 and was not extended, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia imposed unilateral import restrictions, which remain in place to this day.

Trucks stand in line, waiting to cross the border in Medyka, Poland, during a strike by Polish transport sector and farmers
The conflict over food imports from Ukraine has been going on for about a year now, leading to strikes in the Polish transport and agricultural sector (pictured)Image: Dominika Zarzycka/Sopa/Zuma/picture alliance

The opposition in the Polish parliament is now calling for an extension of the import ban. Krzysztof Bosak of the nationalist, anti-Ukraine Confederation party has even demanded an embargo on all agricultural products from Ukraine.

Who would suffer more from an extended embargo?

But experts are warning that if such an extended embargo came into force, any anticipated retaliatory response from Ukraine would damage Poland more than it would benefit the country.

Poland's Agriculture Minister Czeslaw Siekierski told parliament that while the country's trade surplus with Ukraine amounted to €6.9 billion ($7.5 billion) in 2023, Poland had a trade deficit of €650 million when it comes to agricultural products.

Poland exports vehicles, machinery, fuel, weapons, pharmaceutical products, dairy products, vegetables and drinks to Ukraine.

Farmers' 'fighting spirit grows by the day'

Polish government officials have announced that they will meet the protesting farmers next week. For their part, the farmers are planning a protest that will converge on Warsaw from all directions on Tuesday.

"At the moment we are planning to come in buses, not in tractors," said farmers' union leader Slavomir Izdebski. He is expecting 20,000 people to take part, including farmers from Germany, France and the Netherlands.

The farmers are determined not to back down. "Our fighting spirit grows by the day. More and more people are joining us," Andrzej Sobocinski, spokesperson of a blockade on the S7 highway between Gdansk and Warsaw, told TVN24.

Men, woman and children, some in reflective safety vests, gather around a barbeque on a road cooking sausages, Ryki, Poland, February 20, 2024
Farmers in some parts of Poalnd intend to continue blocking roads until MarchImage: Sergei Gapon/AFP

"We're getting a huge amount of support. It brings tears to our eyes when people bring us food and wish us success," he said. The farmers in the region want to continue blocking the roads until March 10. "We will only go home when we see some concrete results," said Sobocinski.

Deterioration in bilateral relations

The ongoing conflict is also having an impact on bilateral relations. Polish media recently reported on the results of a survey conducted by the Kyiv-based Rating group, which indicated a clear drop in positive attitudes towards Poland in Ukraine. According to the survey, 79% of Ukrainians currently see Poland as a "friendly country," as opposed to 94% a year ago. Only 33% of Ukrainians view Poland as "clearly friendly," as opposed to 79% a year ago.

The situation in Poland is similar: A survey conducted by the Personnel Service employment agency last summer indicated that 26% of Poles now have a more negative attitude to Ukraine than was the case a year ago.

This article was originally published in German.

A gray-haired man (Jacek Lepiarz) stands in front of bookcases full of books
Jacek Lepiarz Journalist for DW's Polish Service who specializes in German-Polish subjects