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Truck Chaos on Polish Border Signals Tensions Over Integrating Ukraine Into EU

Thousands of trucks are blocked at the border as Poles fume Ukrainians are undercutting them in sectors ranging from freight to food.

WARSAW — The first thing a Ukrainian would notice entering Poland last year was volunteer groups welcoming exhausted refugees with warm food, clothing, offers of rooms and buses to transport them for free to cities across Poland.

Now, the first thing Ukrainians notice is an immense line of trucks waiting to cross the Dorohusk border checkpoint thanks to a blockade by Polish truckers that began on November 6.

More than 3,000 trucks are now stuck at four border crossings; waiting times are as long as three weeks and at least one driver has died while trapped. Protesters are camped out in tents dusted with snow, warming themselves by fires in open barrels, while drivers, dressed in hi-viz vests, stand by their trucks, many of them smoking and looking on at the flashing blue lights of police cars monitoring the situation.

“Drivers are forced to wait in an open field with no proper food supplies and no proper restrooms,” Ukraine’s Deputy Infrastructure Minister Serhiy Derkach told POLITICO. He added the government is preparing to evacuate hundreds of trapped drivers.

For Kyiv’s relations with Europe, the border blockade is a major crisis, and gives a bitter foretaste of the impending challenges of integrating Ukraine, with its huge farming sector and cheap but well-educated workers, into the EU’s common market.

Cross-border trade flows are imperative to keep Ukraine’s economy ticking over in a time of war, but Polish truckers see Ukrainian drivers as low-cost rivals who are undercutting their business. They’ve been joined by Polish farmers, outraged that Ukrainian grain imports are hurting them by cratering domestic prices.

It’s not just Kyiv that’s angry.

The European Commission issued a blistering criticism on Wednesday of Warsaw’s “complete lack of involvement,” in ending the crisis.

“The Polish authorities are the ones who are supposed to enforce the law at that border,” Transport Commissioner Adina Vălean said in Brussels. “While I support the right of people to protest, the entire EU — not to mention Ukraine, a country currently at war — cannot be taken hostage by blocking our external borders. It’s as simple as that.”

Vălean warned that if Poland doesn’t act, the Commission could hit Warsaw with an infringement for “not respecting the rules or not applying the law.”

But Poland is having a difficult time reacting thanks to the political uncertainty unleashed by last month’s parliamentary election.

Infrastructure Minister Andrzej Adamczyk wrote an appeal on Monday to his Ukrainian counterpart, calling on Kyiv to meet truckers’ demands. What the Polish drivers want is for the EU to roll back the favorable treatment it granted Ukrainian hauliers after the war broke out — allowing them to take loads from Ukraine to anywhere in the bloc with almost no formalities; the same rule applies to EU companies taking goods to Ukraine.

Adamczyk wants Vălean to study the possibility of reinstating international transport permits for Ukrainian hauliers, and Poland plans to raise the issue at the December 4 Transport Council.

But Monday was Adamczyk’s last day on the job. He was replaced as infrastructure minister by Alvin Gajadhur in a Cabinet that is only expected to last for two weeks before a new opposition-led government headed by former PM Donald Tusk takes office.

Tusk denounced the government’s inability to resolve the issue.

“Since they pretend to have formed a real government, they could pretend to deal with real problems,” he said on Tuesday.

Political opportunists

Instability in Warsaw is opening the door to activists from Poland’s far-right Confederation party.

“Ukrainians used to carry out 160,000 trucking operations before the war. This year to date it’s been nearly 1 million,” said Rafał Mekler, owner of a trucking company from Międzyrzec Podlaski in eastern Poland.

But Mekler isn’t simply a rank-and-file trucker. He’s also a Confederation politician who has been heavily involved in organizing the border protests. His Facebook page is rife with criticism of Ukraine, and his party is Poland’s most skeptical of the alliance with Kyiv.

In one of the posts, Mekler likened Ukraine to a “spoiled brat.”

“We are fighting for our transport [business], not against Ukraine. But Ukraine has dug its heels in and won’t budge an inch, giving us this emotional rhetoric about the war and how we are blocking medicines from going through,” Mekler said.

Even though the Polish protesters claim they are letting essential and military cargoes pass, Derkach said that’s very difficult in practice as he saw trucks carrying fuel and humanitarian aid shipments unable to break through the logjam.

“They let some 30 trucks a day pass the border. How can we even say they have the right to do it? What is this, a siege of a war-torn country?” said Oleksiy Davydenko, owner of a Ukrainian medical supply chain called Medtechnika.

Poland’s new Agriculture Minister Anna Gembicka said allegations that humanitarian and military is being held up were “not true.”

She blamed the problems on the border on Russia’s invasion and on the “irresponsible” policy of the EU “which does not see the problems of Poland and [other] border countries.” She added she wants to meet with Economy Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis to explain the Polish viewpoint.

Kyiv says two Ukrainian drivers have died while waiting; Polish police say one has.

So far the Ukrainian government isn’t backing down on its demand that the EU stick to the deal last year that its drivers should be allowed in.

One of the central bugbears for the Poles is that Ukraine uses an electronic tagging system for all trucks queuing up at border crossings. The Poles want their empty trucks exempted from that queuing scheme so they can pass through border controls more quickly.

“We offered [Polish truckers] to open more checkpoints and create special road lines for the empty Polish trucks. But they do not want to register in an electronic queue system like everyone else. It would be unfair to other countries if we offer a special treatment,” Derkach said. 

“We also can’t return to the permits system as we lost all our other borders for our export,” Derkach added, complaining that the Polish truckers were unwilling to talk. “They didn’t want to listen to that we have to keep the economy running during the war. Some of them said they already helped enough and now they had to feed their families. So they just stood up and left the negotiations.”

Border policy

The importance of Ukraine’s border with Poland surged after Russia’s invasion last year, which cut off the country’s easy access its Black Sea ports.

Initially, Poland welcomed millions of refugees, led the way in supplying weapons to Ukraine and backed its speedy admission to the EU.

But as the costs of those policies rose, so did political tensions.

Poland, along with Hungary and Slovakia, closed its market to Ukrainian grain imports, despite an EU-Ukraine trade deal and in violation of the rules of the European Union’s single market.

Now it’s the turn of Polish truck drivers. Slovak and Hungarian truckers are threatening similar protests. Ironically, Central European hauliers are making similar grievances to West European trucking firms — which complained bitterly about being undercut when those countries joined the EU.

The truckers have been joined by farmers, who on Monday launched a 24-hour blockade of the Medyka border crossing in southeastern Poland.

Ukrainians “are biting the hand we have extended to them,” farm protest organizer Roman Kondrów told the Polish Press Agency.

The protests have cost Ukraine’s economy more than €400 million, Volodymyr Balin, vice president of the Association of International Motor Carriers, said at a briefing in Kyiv. 

“I think our mistake was to rely on Poland so much. We moved our businesses, we pay taxes logistics fees we used to pay in Ukraine to Poland now. We thought we had our backs covered,” Medtechnika’s Davydenko said. “Maybe if we were a bit more cautious, we would not be dependent on Poland so much..”

Source: Politico