The eastern flank of the European Union — particularly Poland — continues to play a crucial role in helping Ukraine fight against Russia’s invasion. A recent diplomatic squabble over grain imports, compounded by historical issues, puts the once stable footing at risk.
The ongoing invasion of Ukraine has placed a major strain on the entire continent — not least Poland, whose government has maintained a reputation as one of the most steadfast supporters of its neighbour’s defence efforts.
These strains, however, have created a dilemma. Should helping Ukraine come at the expense of a country's domestic interests?
On Wednesday, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said that Poland remained committed to defending its domestic interest, despite the invasion.
“We will always defend Poland’s good name, its security, and the interest of no other country will ever prevail over the interest of the Republic of Poland,” Morawiecki said in a tweet.
The kerfuffle broke out after Marcin Przydacz, the head of Polish President Andrzej Duda’s international policy office, was asked about the issue of extending the import ban of Ukrainian grain to Poland and four other eastern EU member states beyond the 15 September deadline.
Przydacz said during an appearance on the TVP, Poland’s state media outlet, that “defending the interests of the Polish farmer” was of crucial importance for the country.
“Ukraine has really received a lot of support from Poland. I think it would be worth them starting to appreciate the role that Poland has played for Ukraine in recent months and years,” he continued.
Ire in Kyiv
Following the statement, Poland’s ambassador in Kyiv was summoned by the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and “during the meeting, it was emphasized that the statements about the alleged ingratitude of the Ukrainians for the assistance of the Republic of Poland do not reflect reality and as such are unacceptable,” the ministry said in a release.
The summoning of the Polish ambassador by Kyiv, a diplomatic reprimand which equates to a telling-off, was widely condemned by analysts in Warsaw.
Radosław Fogiel, the head of the foreign affairs committee of the Polish Sejm, also criticized Ukraine.
“We will help Ukraine because it is in our interest, but at the same time we cannot allow a situation where Poland will be the one to bear an undue burden due to what is happening,” he said in a statement for Wirtualna Polska.
Recently, parties that express Ukraine-sceptic or even explicitly anti-Ukrainian views – such as the far-right Konfederacja – have been trying to garner support amongst those in Poland who would prefer to see their country shift away from spending on its neighbour.
Konfederacja recently organised protests that echoed some pro-Kremlin talking points, spurred by the anniversary of the killing and deportation of thousands ethnic Poles from Volhynia or Wołyń region by a radical faction of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN-B) during World War II.
Not to be outdone, Kremlin spokeswoman Maria Zakharova dipped her toes into the debate as well, commenting on a Telegram channel that Poland was acting “like a wolf talking to a sheep – you should start appreciating that I chose you for dinner out of the whole herd.”
Russia would likely be the first to benefit from a serious or prolonged deterioration in the relationship between the two.
It all boils down to cereal
Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania have all seen their domestic grain production and relative compatibility in the EU single market – which they belong to and Ukraine does not – suffer due to copious amounts of cheaper grain flooding the market.
The UN brokered a deal between Russia and Ukraine in July of 2022, the first since Moscow launched the full-scale invasion, which was facilitated by Turkey in Istanbul and provided an important injection to Ukraine’s war-torn economy.
Kyiv and Moscow signed two identical but separate documents at the request of Ukraine, which refused to be on a document signed by Russia.
Russia backed out of the UN grain deal several times, blocking Ukraine's exports, only to reinstate it again for a month or two at a time.
Soon after, farmers in EU nations bordering Ukraine complained that the grain was making its way into EU markets and that their locally produced grain – which is subject to EU regulations, taxes and other mechanisms and thus automatically more expensive – was being cast aside.
As a result, these countries independently imposed a ban on importing Ukrainian grain in April.
Unilateral import bans risk violating the principle of a common EU market. The issue also highlights the disparate priorities between grain-producing and solely grain-consuming EU countries.
In response, the European Commission adopted an exceptional measure which replaced the national import bans with an EU-approved ban for the five. This measure recognised the import embargo on wheat, maize, rapeseed and sunflower seeds to the five member states, while allowing the transit of these goods – duty and quote free – to the rest of the EU and third countries.
The measure is due to expire on 15 September.
However, Poland has said it will not lift its individual ban if the EU chooses to not extend this measure.
“We will not open this border. If the European Commission does not extend the ban, we will do it ourselves,” PM Morawiecki said.
Robert Telus, the agricultural minister of Poland, argued that the import ban has actually improved transit to third countries.
“Our actions in defence of the interests of farmers from EU countries are not directed against anyone,” said Telus. “They are a call for reconsideration and for appropriate, much-needed decisions on the part of the European Commission.”
It they walk back the import ban, the ruling Law and Justice party in Poland would leave a campaign issue on the table that could easily be adopted by any of their opponents in the upcoming national elections in the country.