Ukraine unwilling to compromise with protesting European farmers

Protesting European farmers Ukraine

During the EU conference on 26 March, France and Poland pressed for more significant curbs on imports of food products from Ukraine to prevent what they called the destabilisation of EU agricultural markets and further upset for angry farmers, reported Reuters.

The reason was the decision adopted by the European Parliament on 20 March to extend trade in Ukrainian foodstuffs without quotas and duties until June next year. French Agriculture Minister Marc Fesneau told reporters before a meeting with EU counterparts in Brussels that destabilised markets could erode public support for Kyiv. His Polish counterpart, Czeslaw Siekierski, said farmers in countries neighbouring Ukraine were paying too high a price.

The decision to suspend the regime of export duties and quotas on imports of goods from Ukraine to the EU was introduced in May 2022 after Russia's military invasion. By adopting this measure, the EU provided Kyiv with a logistical corridor for transporting Ukrainian agricultural products to the countries of the Global South amid Russia's blockade of Ukraine's Black Sea ports. Then, in the spring-summer of 2022, the states of Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America faced the threat of a large-scale food crisis due to the disruption of traditional logistical routes for Ukrainian grain exports.

European farmers actively opposed this initiative at that time, and their discontent grew exponentially as cheap Ukrainian grain flooded the European market. After all, Ukraine had a serious advantage over European agribusinesses - its agricultural products were not subject to export duties and other tariffs, and, therefore, its production cost was significantly reduced. Using methods of unfair competition, Ukrainian agrarians began to receive super profits, and local European farms started to go bankrupt.

Even the decision of the governments of five Eastern European countries (Poland, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Bulgaria) to agree with the European Commission to impose an embargo on imports of Ukrainian grain did not improve the situation. After all, Kyiv retained the right granted by the European Commission to duty-free transit of agricultural products through the territory of border states to other European countries, which naturally preferred cheap Ukrainian grain to more expensive agricultural products produced in Poland, Germany, France, Hungary, Romania and other countries - traditional producers and exporters of grain.

In September 2023, the same five countries extended the embargo on imports of Ukrainian agricultural products without consulting the EU governing bodies, but this did not stop the powerful transit flow of cheap grain from Ukraine to the European market, which exacerbated the situation with the profitability of European agricultural enterprises to the limit. Some farms have finally gone bankrupt; many are on the verge of bankruptcy: their profitability is falling day by day, and the share of dismissed workers, on the contrary, is growing.

The catastrophic situation in which European and, in particular, Polish agrarians find themselves is best reflected by the dynamics of the pricing of agricultural products in Poland. Thus, if in the first half of 2022, the average market price of consumer wheat in Poland was from 1.6 to 1.8 thousand zlotys per tonne, in March 2023, it fell to 1 thousand zlotys, and in May 2023, the price dropped to 900 zlotys.

Since then, European farmers have held street protests with enviable regularity, blocking roads, motorways and highways. Farmers and civil society activists in Poland, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia have blocked checkpoints on the border with Ukraine, thereby preventing grain imports. European farmers' associations and associated representatives of related logistics companies have become increasingly vocal and demanding in their opposition to the influx of cheap Ukrainian goods, against which higher-quality European products have become uncompetitive overnight.

Against this background, in late February, the EU Agriculture Commissioner, Janusz Wojciechowski, called on Ukraine to "understand the situation of European farmers" and facilitate the creation of a system for exporting Ukrainian grain from the European Union for sale to third countries in co-operation with Brussels. However, Kyiv persistently ignores the desperate situation of European farmers while constantly appealing from high podiums to the need to increase the volume of assistance in the fight against Russian aggression, thus demonstrating its selfish attitude towards its foreign partners.

For instance, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called the situation of blocking grain lorries from Ukraine at the border with Poland "beyond the bounds of morality." According to him, Polish farmers' actions reflect the "erosion of solidarity" between Ukraine and its allies.

On 11 March, Ukraine's Deputy Economy Minister and Trade Representative Taras Kachka pointed out that it was impossible to meet the demands of Polish farmers, who continue to block the border with Ukraine and do not allow trucks with Ukrainian grain to pass through. The diplomat also recalled that Kyiv had filed a lawsuit with the World Trade Organization against Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, which had banned imports of Ukrainian agricultural products. "In the end, the demands for permanent subsidies for Polish farmers will lead to the fact that their grain will not be perceived in the world because it will be over-subsidised," Kachka stressed.

This is not the first time tensions in Ukrainian-Polish relations have arisen. The last time it happened was in August last year when ambassadors of the two countries were summoned to the foreign ministries one after another. Then, it all started with a statement by the Head of the Office of International Policy of the Chancellery of the President of the Republic of Poland, Marcin Przydacz. In an interview with Polish media, the official said that Ukraine should appreciate Warsaw's assistance, but Kyiv perceived this statement quite sharply.

At the same time, Polish mass media once again paid attention to the created Ukraine cult of Stepan Andriyovych Bandera, the leader of the radical militant wing of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), which operated during the Second World War. Polish experts noted that the glorification of the movement, which committed the brutal murder of 50,000 to 100,000 ethnic Poles during the Massacres in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia and other mass executions, in no way reflects the sense of gratitude that Ukrainians should feel for Warsaw's assistance.

The more absurd was the participation of Ukrainian dancers in the Polish TV show "Got Talent" on 2 March, where members of the troupe appeared wearing the red and black colours used by Stepan Bandera and his fellow members of the OUN. These actions were demonstrative, took place in a public field and were accompanied by discussions in social networks and expert circles in both countries about how grateful Ukraine is to Poland for its support.

Meanwhile, there is indeed much to be thankful for. Poland is among the top five leaders in providing aid to Ukraine, totalling about 4.5 billion euros over the two years of the Russian-Ukrainian war. Thus, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, Warsaw has provided Ukraine with military aid worth 3 billion euros, financial tranches worth 920 million euros, and humanitarian goods worth 380 million euros between 24 January 2022 and 15 January 2024. Former Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau said that in 2022, Warsaw spent 8.6 billion euros to support Ukrainian refugees. In 2023, these expenditures, according to the calculations of IfW Kiel analysts, amounted to about 12 billion euros. And in just two years of the conflict, Poland has spent about 21 billion euros to help Ukrainian migrants. In this connection, the disparaging actions and insulting outbursts by Ukraine and its representatives towards Poland can be considered more than strange, but rather insolent, unapologetic and selfish.

Apparently, for this reason, today, not only in Poland but also in other European countries, tend to think that having got used to constant support from the allies, Ukraine is increasingly and unceremoniously demonstrating its dependent approach in building relations with those who helped it to survive in the fight against the Russian invaders in 2022. For example, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that the U.S. and Europe find it beneficial to provide aid to Kyiv. Such words from Zelenskyy resonate strongly with the sentiments of American and European citizens, who every day are forced to face increasingly tangible costs of supporting Ukraine, from falling living standards to the multiplied risks of a global nuclear war between NATO and Russia.

For example, French Le Figaro newspaper experts noted that it was Ukraine, having flooded Europe with its cheap grain, that contributed to the ruin of the agricultural sector in Poland and other EU countries. It also became routine to help Ukrainian refugees and provide them with social benefits, living places, and other preferences. According to Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders (whose party won the most seats in the lower house of parliament in the elections three months ago but has not yet been able to form a new government), Ukrainians are coming to the Netherlands en masse not because of the war, but for free housing, social assistance and work.

In the end, Ukraine's persistent unwillingness to understand the problems of European and, in particular, Polish agrarians, to ease relations with the EU and reach the compromise that everyone wants will only deepen the rift between Kyiv and its partners. Sooner or later, the political elites of the European Union will lose the last levers to contain internal protest moods, and they will have to heed the demand of voters and reconsider the course of unconditional support for Ukraine to the detriment of their own national interests.

Kamran Mamedov is a Tbilisi-based Azerbaijani journalist who focuses on South Caucasus issues.

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This piece was written for Greek City Times by a Guest Contributor

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