Zelenskyy asks Brussels to defuse Polish farmer dispute over tariff-free grain

Poland's Prime Minister Donald Tusk, left, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy talk during their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, Jan. 22, 2024.
Poland's Prime Minister Donald Tusk, left, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy talk during their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, Jan. 22, 2024. Copyright AP/Ukrainian Presidential Press Office
Copyright AP/Ukrainian Presidential Press Office
By Mared Gwyn JonesJorge Liboreiro
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President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called on the European Commission to step in to avoid what he calls "political manipulation" of a dispute between Ukraine and Poland over agricultural imports.

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As Polish farmers blockaded the border with their war-torn neighbour for a second week in protest over unfair competition, Zelenskyy warned Brussels that unless it intervenes, Moscow could profit from the strained relations between Kyiv and Warsaw.

In a video statement published on Wednesday, Ukraine's President directly urged Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk to join him personally for talks on the blockaded border crossing, adding that he had also invited a representative of the European Commission.

"We must preserve Europe's unity. This is fundamentally in the interests of the European Union," Zelenskyy said.

"We have had enough of Moscow's presence in our lands. We have had enough misunderstandings. We should not humiliate each other, we should not humiliate either Ukrainian or Polish farmers," he added.

"We need unity. We need solutions—between us, Ukraine and Poland, and at the level of the whole of Europe."

But when asked on Thursdays about the direct appeal, the Commission could not confirm if the executive had received a formal invitation from the Ukrainian government. A spokesperson admitted the situation was "complex" and "evolving" and stressed negotiations between Ukraine and the bordering countries were the only way to design a durable solution. The last technical meeting took place on Tuesday.

"(We're trying to find) a solution to this that satisfies, on the one hand, the Commission's commitment to continue supporting Ukraine's economy, including its agri-food sector, which is of systemic importance to its economy," the spokesperson said.

"On the other hand, we're trying to find solutions to protecting sensitive EU market sectors when there's evidence of market disturbance. And so that's the balance we're trying to strike."

Poland's agriculture minister Czesław Siekierski told TV channel TVN24 on Wednesday that the ongoing talks with his Ukrainian counterparts are "very difficult." Talks are focused on potential quotas for the import of Ukrainian foodstuffs.

His deputy minister Michał Kołodziejczak added that Brussels needed to get involved. "If the European Commission does not get involved in solving this problem, if this problem is not addressed strategically, Poland will actually isolate itself from products from Ukraine, but they will reach the Western European market," Kołodziejczak said.

Long-standing grain dispute intensifies

Tensions over Ukrainian imports have been brewing in Poland and other eastern EU member states since April last year.

The EU lifted customs duties and quotas on a wide range of Ukrainian goods, including agri-food products, in a bid to help the country boost its trade floods amid the Russian aggression and avoid global food shortages.

But farmers in five bordering countries – Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria – complained that the move had caused a glut of cheap Ukrainian foodstuff in their countries, depressing prices for local producers, taking up storage and tightening the belt on families in rural communities.

The complaints led Warsaw and other capitals to unilaterally ban the domestic sale of Ukrainian cereals to protect farmers, initially sparking outrage in Brussels.

But with farmers' discontent threatening to undermine EU solidarity with Ukraine and the rural vote considered pivotal in crunch European elections in June, the Commission struck a temporary deal that allowed four Ukrainian products  – wheat, maize, rapeseed and sunflower seed – to transit through the neighbouring countries but without staying in their markets for domestic consumption or storage.

The arrangement came to an end in September. However, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia defied the European consensus and maintained their prohibitions, which are not coordinated and cover goods beyond the aforementioned four products.

Donald Tusk, who became Poland's prime minister in mid-December, has inherited the previous Law and Justice government's struggles to maintain his show of support for Ukraine while also appeasing farmers and truckers, who say their livelihoods have been hit by the show of solidarity to Kyiv.

Tusk's cabinet has so far kept the restrictions, causing frustration in Brussels. The recent wave of farmers' protests across Europe, however, has re-awakened discontent as Polish producers call for the grain ban to be expanded to Ukrainian fruit, vegetables and sugar, which they say also are driving down their prices.

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A proposed EU regulation, which is still under discussion, would allow member states to apply "remedial measures" on Ukrainian imports in case of market turmoil at the local level. The new regulation would also enable the automatic re-introduction of tariffs if trade flows of three "sensitive products" – poultry, eggs and sugar – spike.

The Commission hopes this new system will be enough to convince Poland, Hungary and Slovakia to lift their unilateral bans. Otherwise, legal action might be launched.

"Poland maintains its unilateral blockade against imports from Ukraine. And one has to ask the question if that was functioning as it was intended," a Commission spokesperson said on Thursday.

The months-long grain dispute has threatened to severely strain the relationship between the neighbouring nations and other Western allies. Warsaw has been a staunch backer of Zelenskyy's efforts to withstand Russia's invasion, and has welcomed more Ukrainian refugees fleeing war than any other EU country.

But as the standoff worsens, the Ukrainian leader has stepped up its rhetoric. In his video message, Zelenskyy denounced Polish farmers who he says have "flagrantly dumped" Ukrainian grain in demonstrations over recent weeks.

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"This is the grain that our farmers and peasants cultivate with great difficulty, despite all of the hardships caused by Russia's brutal aggression," Zelenskyy said.

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