Polish truck drivers have spent nearly a month blockading different crossing points along the border with Ukraine. Last Friday, Slovak drivers joined the protest, turning the dispute into an all-out European crisis.
The around-the-clock restrictions have left thousands of Ukrainian drivers trapped in Poland, waiting for days on end to make it to the other side. Local media speak about queues that stretch more than 30 kilometres into Polish territory.
The harsh conditions in the area, including sub-zero temperatures, scarce food supplies and a lack of sanitary services, have raised serious security concerns, with reports of two Ukrainian drivers having died of natural causes while lingering inside their vehicles. (Poland says only one has died so far.)
Officials in Kyiv have described the situation as “catastrophic” and even touted an emergency plan to evacuate those who have been left stranded. The Federation of Employers of Ukraine estimates the national economy has lost at least €400 million.
Meanwhile in Brussels, the European Commission has sent Warsaw a message of strong disapproval and threatened to launch legal action if EU rules are not properly applied.
Here’s all you need to know to understand the truckers’ protests.
Why are truckers so angry?
The protest stems from a question of market competition.
As part of the European Union’s multi-faceted support for Ukraine, the bloc agreed to exempt Ukraine’s road freight carriers from carrying the permits that are traditionally required for non-EU haulers. Driving licences and certificates of professional competence issued by one side were automatically recognised as valid by the other.
The measure was introduced in June last year to boost the so-called “solidarity lanes,” which are meant to help Ukraine sustain its national economy and trading relations in the face of the Russian aggression. The partial occupation of Russian troops in Eastern Ukraine has deprived the country of access to the Black Sea, its main route for exports.
According to the European Commission, the “solidarity lanes” have allowed Ukraine to export over 60 million tonnes of foodstuffs, such as grain and oilseeds, between March 2022 and November 2023, in addition to 48 million tonnes of non-agricultural goods.
But Polish truckers are not pleased. They argue that Ukrainian drivers have been given excessive leeway and are taking advantage of the new rules to cover transport routes between member states that do not involve Ukraine.
Because Ukrainian carriers offer lower prices for their services and are not bound by EU standards, Polish truckers, who have for years enjoyed a leading position in Europe’s road transport sector, feel the situation amounts to unfair competition and demand the immediate re-imposition of the obligation to carry permits.
They also want empty trucks returning from Ukraine to be excluded from eCherha, an electronic queuing system set up by Kyiv, which protesters say creates excessive waiting times and exposes companies to economic losses.
Slovak drives share the same arguments and want to bring back pre-war rules.
What’s the scope of the protests?
The protests began on 6 November and have gradually extended to four checkpoints along the Poland-Ukraine border: Dorohusk-Yahodyn, Hrebenne-Rava-Ruska, Korczowa-Krakovets and, since last week, Medyka-Shehyni.
In total, the country has eight crossing points with Ukraine for road freight transport.
Protesters have promised to allow passage to vehicles carrying humanitarian aid and military supplies into the war-torn nation, but Kyiv says this promise is not being fulfilled.
Meanwhile, Slovak drivers have blocked the Vysne Nemecke-Uzhhorod checkpoint, Slovakia’s busiest border gate with Ukraine.
Is this related to the dispute over Ukrainian grain?
Strictly speaking, it is not. The ongoing protests relate to the competition posed by Ukrainian truckers, who are now able to service European clients with greater ease.
However, the blockade does share a link with the dispute over grain. As a response to Russia’s invasion, the EU lifted the tariffs on Ukrainian agricultural products, which were exported out of the country through the “solidarity lanes.” The abolition of duties led to a glut of low-cost Ukrainian grain across the European market, in particular in five peripherical member states: Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria.
Poland, facing the anger of farmers, reacted by imposing a unilateral ban that forbids Ukrainian cereals from being sold or stored inside the country. The prohibition was designed and established by the government as a policy measure.
The protesting truckers are a grassroots movement, without direct instigation from the state. Warsaw has, however, expressed solidarity with the affected drivers, supported the reasoning behind their claims and urged Brussels to re-establish transport permits.
Figures released by Poland’s Ministry of Infrastructure serve to underscore the dissatisfaction of protesters: in 2021, the year before Russia launched the war, Polish truckers had a 38% market share against 62% of their Ukrainian competitors. At the end of October, the numbers turned to 8% and 92%, respectively.
What’s Brussels saying?
Adina Vălean, the European Commissioner for transport, has described the situation as “absolutely unacceptable” and called for a swift resolution.
“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 said last week.
Vălean berated the Polish government for not doing its part to ease the conflict and said the Commission could open an infringement procedure to ensure EU law is respected.
“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.
Could there be a solution?
Talks are ongoing between the different parties but no roadmap for a lasting solution has yet emerged. Over the weekend, Poland and Ukraine struck a targeted deal to enable the movement of empty trucks by opening the Dołhobyczów-Uhryniv checkpoint and creating separate slots at the Dorohusk-Yahodyn and Korczowa-Krakovets crossings.
But the Polish government, which is in the midst of a power transition after eight years of hard-right government under the Law and Justice (PiS) party, has also announced stricter truck inspections along the border “at the request of Polish carriers” and called for an urgent review of the EU-Ukraine road transport agreement.
The European Commission is playing the role of facilitator and has suggested a list of “technical measures” that can be introduced to ease the tensions. But Brussels has made it clear that the abolition of transport permits, which has become the main source of uneasiness, would not be touched because it derives from an international agreement signed with Ukraine and rubberstamped by member states.
The Commission, as was the case during the grain controversy, is opposed to making any significant alterations to the many ways in which the bloc is supporting Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Polish protesters have said the blockade could last until early January if their demands are not satisfied.
Source: Euro News