The European Commission has harshly denounced the blockade at the Ukrainian border instigated by Polish truckers and farmers, threatening legal action against the government in Warsaw.
"The truth is that I find the situation at the Polish border with Ukraine absolutely unacceptable," Adina Vălean, the European Commissioner for transport, said on Wednesday.
"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."
Since 6 November, Polish truckers and farmers have blocked transit through different border crossings along the Polish-Ukrainian border. On Monday, the around-the-clock restrictions were extended to a fourth crossing, in Medyka, further aggravating the crisis.
Only vehicles carrying humanitarian and military aid are allowed in.
As a result, thousands of Ukrainian truck drivers have been left stranded and forced to wait entire days before making it to the other side, with queues stretching over 30 kilometres into Polish territory. The rough conditions on the ground, including sub-zero temperatures and a lack of sanitary facilities, have raised safety concerns.
Two Ukrainian drivers who were waiting to cross the border have died inside their vehicles, both reportedly of natural causes.
Polish protesters demand the re-imposition of pre-war rules on Ukrainian truckers, who have been exempted from the obligation of carrying transport permits. The change was introduced last year as part of the European Union's "solidarity lanes," which are meant to help the war-torn nation sustain its national economy and trading relations.
Protesters also want empty trucks returning from Ukraine to the EU to be excluded from an electronic queuing system set up by Kyiv and the introduction of measures to prevent Belarusian and Russian haulers from evading international sanctions.
According to the Polish Ministry of Infrastructure, the changes introduced by the "solidarity lanes" have drastically upended competition to the detriment of Polish drivers: in 2021, the year before Russia launched the war, Polish truckers had a 38% market share against 62% of their Ukrainian competitors, which offer cheaper rates and are not bound by EU standards. At the end of October, the numbers turned to 8% and 92%, respectively.
But unlike the bans on tariff-free Ukrainian grain imposed earlier this year, these border restrictions are not established or endorsed by the hard-right Polish government, which lost power after the elections in October.
"We remain in constant contact with the transport industry. We are also talking to the government of Ukraine and the European Commission because they hold the key to removing the direct causes of this protest," Alvin Gajadhur, Poland's acting minister of infrastructure, said on Wednesday.
Commissioner Vălean, however, appeared unconvinced by the overture and publicly berated the Polish government for not doing its part to resolve the dispute.
"There is no good faith in finding a solution. This is my evaluation today," Vălean said. "There is a nearly complete lack of involvement of Polish authorities."
"I'm saying that because the Polish authorities are the ones that are supposed to enforce the law at that border," she added.
The Commissioner said there was a list of "technical measures" that could alleviate the tensions and restore transit but these "have to be accepted by the Polish part."
"We continue the dialogue but we reserve our right to intervene as Commission even with an infringement (procedure) against those who are not respecting the rules and are not applying the law," Vălean noted.
An infringement procedure is one of the instruments the executive has to ensure European legislation is adequately and uniformly applied across the bloc. The procedure has several phases and can lead to a lawsuit before the European Court of Justice, which can impose daily fines on a non-compliant member state.
Ukraine is open to finding a compromise with Poland but says its drivers need to be first provided with food and emergency services. Ukraine has also opened the door to evacuate those who have been left stranded inside Poland.
Meanwhile, Slovak truckers have threatened to join the blockade from 1 December unless action is taken to decrease competition from Ukrainian haulers, according to the country's Union of Slovak carriers (UNAS).