It hurts to see thugs who, under the veil of Polish farmers, spilled Ukrainian grain on the ground. Many Poles felt ashamed and many expressed outrage and sadness on social media.

It hurts much more to see Ukrainians taking Poles for an enemy. And this happens – understandably – when Poles are closing the border against Ukrainians.

How did we come to this? Why do Polish farmers protest against Ukrainians when 77 percent of the Poles support them at the most terrible time for Ukraine?

The simple answer is that Polish farmers’ complaints are largely justified as Ukrainian imports have deprived them of some part of their income – not all, but these imports flooded the Polish market, and the offered prices have undercut Polish producers drastically.

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As the Polish Supreme Audit Office (NIK) reported, imports from Ukraine to Poland in 2022 alone signified a massive increase:

  • Wheat by 16,771 percent – from 3,100 tons in 2021 to 523,000 tons in 2022,
  • Corn by 29,803 percent – from 6,200 tons in 2021 to 1.8 million tons in 2022,
  • Rapeseed by 670 percent – from 86,000 tons in 2021 to 6.6 million tons in 2022.

Between Jan. 1, 2022, and April 30, 2023, 541 companies imported a total of 4.3 million tons of cereals and oil plants worth PLN 6.2 billion ($1.5 billion), which drove the prices down and hurt the farmers in the process.

The NIK also believed the Polish government did not develop systemic solutions, including mechanisms to ensure the functioning of Polish agricultural producers, to maintain agricultural market stability.

This report was revealed in November 2023, and despite the fact that Polish media has been reporting on this problem for months – this data came as a shock nonetheless.

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Here’s a timeline of the events that unfolded.

May and June 2022

Low prices of Ukrainian grains led to its popularity in Poland

Ukrainian agricultural products, without having to meet EU quality, safety, sanitary and ecological standards as a non-EU member, were cheaper than local Polish production, which must meet the bloc’s standards and regulations. As a result, Ukrainian producers/exporters were able to offer much lower prices than Polish farmers.

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In economics, exporting the product at a price lower than the prices on the importing market in order to take over the market, if applied with malicious intentions, would be qualified as “dumping prices.”

There was no malicious intention on the Ukrainian side – instead, it was a desperate need to save the national economy of which agricultural exports are a big part. This is why after Russia invaded Ukraine, the EU decided to help the Ukrainian economy by:

  • Suspending customs duties and quotas on imports from Ukraine (starting from June 2022 initially for a year, with the possibility of extension)
  • Bypassing the Russian blockade of the Ukrainian Black Sea ports, which handled 90 percent of Ukrainian agricultural exports before the war, to create the “solidarity corridors” in which Poland and Romania played the main roles.

Everybody understood the need and everybody agreed.

All was going seemingly well until Polish farmers began having problems with selling their agricultural products domestically.

April 2023

In Poland, 2023 was an election year. For the then-ruling PiS party, farmers were the pillar of the electorate, and the party was doomed to lose without their votes. As Polish farmers were getting more and more vocal about their frustration, the PiS government decided to act.

As a result, Poland, alongside Hungary and Slovakia, introduced a ban on Ukrainian grain imports in April 2023.

To some extent, this appeased Polish farmers. However, the Ukrainian government was upset by Poland’s decision, and the contacts between officials made a U-turn, going from cordial, as depicted in photos of Presidents Volodymyr Zelensky and Andrej Duda hugging each other, to permafrost.

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After some talks between the Polish and Ukrainian governments – with no hugs this time – it was decided that Ukrainian exports for other destinations would be allowed to transit through Poland.

All was going seemingly well until reports started coming in that Ukrainian exports, that were entering Poland for transit only, were not leaving Poland for other destinations as declared.

It appears that opportunistic entrepreneurs from Ukraine and Poland decided there was no reason to stop their profitable trade of buying cheap Ukrainian ingredients and turning them into shelf-ready products, thus eliminating Polish farmers along the way. It’s also worth noting that the drop in prices on the gross product market did not translate to reduced retail prices.

September 2023

The Ukrainian government sought help from the EU to force Poland to lift the ban, but the European Commission’s attempt to discipline Poland was futile. The growing exasperation eventually erupted as a very public blow-for-blow display:

  • Duda compared Ukraine’s fight for survival against Russia to that of a “drowning person,” bringing down those who try to help.
  • Zelensky accused Poland of supporting Russia indirectly, claiming “some of our friends in Europe” have “made a thriller from the grain” at the United Nations General Assembly.
  • Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s prime minister, hit back at Zelensky by hissing “never insult Poles again.”

Then, the Polish government announced it had no more weapons for Ukraine – it had to re-arm its own army.

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November 2023

The October elections in Poland led to the opposition’s victory, but it was not decisive enough that it was only able to consolidate its power by mid-December. Meanwhile, the conflict over Ukrainian imports continued, and new actors entered the stage in early November.

This time it was the Polish truckers, and they entered the stage with a bang and blocked the Polish-Ukrainian border, but not about grain imports this time.

This time, they said it was about unfair competition from Ukraine, as the introduction of the electronic queue system favored Ukrainian truckers by about 10-12 days, where they would not have to wait at the checkpoint to enter or leave Ukraine, while everyone else, including Polish truckers, had to.

Polish truckers presented many more demands than just correcting the queue system, but they did not garner much attention as the Polish government was already a lame duck.

The new Polish government was sworn in only in mid-December. After several weeks of negotiations, Polish truckers withdrew from the border blockade.

However, the truckers' blockade would soon be replaced by Polish farmers with tractors.

February 2024

The EU decided to extend the tariff exemption for Ukraine, which led Polish farmers to the conviction that not only was their problem not going to be solved, but it would get worse.

This brought us to the February blockade when the emotions among the Polish farmers reached a boiling point, leading to grain-spilling incidents and anti-Ukrainian slogans – likely fueled by some active agents of a certain country who were identified through VKontakte.

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Shouldn’t the Polish farmers be at the Russian border?

According to some Ukrainian institutions, Russian imports are bigger than Ukrainian imports – which is categorically untrue. 

Imports of Russian grain in 2022 – not directly, but via the EU – were only 6 million kilograms (it should be zero, but the EU forgot to ban this import), while imports of Ukrainian grain in the same year were 3 billion kilograms, which is 500 times bigger.

What about the German border?

On Feb. 20, the Polish deputy agriculture minister suggested that Polish farmers might have been blocking the wrong border – as it turns out, Ukrainians have been obeying the “transit only rule” in the past month, but these cargos have been returned by German customs.

When Ukrainian grain reached Germany, it was reported to be of poor quality upon examination and did not meet the country’s requirements, where it was then returned to Poland as European grain.

“It is no longer returning to Ukraine, but to Poland,” said the minister.

Welcome to the EU ever unhappy family, Ukraine. Yes, the usual bickering among EU members about quotas and farmers’ issues is – in the words of Zelensky about the border blockade – a mockery compared to what Ukrainians are facing near Kupyansk.

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Does the Polish government realize that? Yes, they do and I very much hope they are close to solving the problem.

The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.

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