April 29, 2016
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For the past month, Poland has been blocking off its border checkpoints to Ukrainian trucks, leaving many in days-long lines. It's a commercial and economic showdown, but it's about much more.
With lines that now stretch for up to 40 kilometers (25 miles), thousands of Ukrainian truckers must now wait an average of about four days in ever colder weather to cross the border, sometimes with the help of the Polish police. At least two Ukrainian truck drivers have died while waiting for passage into Poland.
The round-the-clock blockade is being manned by Polish trucking unions who claim that Ukrainian trucking companies, which offer a cheaper rate, have been transporting goods across Europe, rather than between Poland and Ukraine. Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion, Ukrainian truckers have been exempt from the permits once required to cross the border.
Now, Polish truckers are demanding that their government reintroduce entry permits for Ukrainian lorries, with exceptions for military and humanitarian aid from Europe. For the moment, those trucks are being let through the blockade, which currently affects four out of Ukraine’s eight border crossings with Poland.
Truckers along the border have since been joined by farmers who oppose the shipment of Ukrainian grain into Poland, which they say has been flooding the market and lowering their prices. After mass complaints, and amid a fraught election cycle, the farmers were able to win some concessions from the government, defying EU regulations.
"The interests of Polish farmers are more important to us than any regulations from Brussels that would be detrimental to them," Robert Telus, Poland’s Minister of Agriculture, said in an interview with French daily Le Monde.
The protests have also received support from the Polish far-right Confederation (Konfederacja) party, which has been one of the rare voices critical of Ukraine in a country that has historical animosity toward Russia.
Rafał Mekler, the party's leader in Lublin, who also owns Polish trucking company Transport, announced on Nov. 17 that he and a group of Polish truckers submitted a letter listing their grievances to the European Commission, noting that trucking accounts for over 6% of Poland’s GDP, and that it employs over one million Poles.
“We are referring to the same precedent and mechanism that allowed farmers to defend their jobs,” Mekler wrote after publishing the letter on X (formerly Twitter).
31 August 2023, Hesse, Grü¤fenhausen: A trucker from Eastern Europe sits in front of the grille of his truck at the Grü¤fenhausen rest stop.
Several members of the European Commission believe that Poland has not done enough to address the mounting tensions along the border. Under European directives on the liberalization of trade with Ukraine, Poland must allow all Ukrainian truckers to cross into the EU country.
Slovak truckers are threatening a longer protest if the European Union does not revert to its previous permit system.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine has had a major impact on Ukrainian trade. As the war continues, non-essential production has slowed, resulting in a loss of available goods to export abroad. Russia has also blocked off Ukrainian ports, and closed off its maritime trade, making trucking all the more essential for facilitating the flow of goods into and out of the country.
Ten days after Poland’s blockade began, disaffected truckers in Slovakia blocked the Użhorod-Vyšné Nemecké crossing with Ukraine in solidarity with Polish truckers. Rather than a longstanding blockade, their move only lasted an hour, in a symbolic gesture of support.
As the situation along the Polish border continues to escalate, Slovak truckers are threatening a longer protest if the European Union does not revert to its previous permit system for Ukrainian vehicles crossing into Europe. This would provoke further difficulties for Ukrainian truckers, many of whom have started crossing into Slovakia as a means of bypassing the Polish blockade.
November 10, 2023, Warsaw, Poland: Donald Tusk, leader of the Civic Platform and former prime minister, speaks during a press conference in the Parliament.
Negotiations so far have failed to end the blockade, and the issue has not been a priority for most of Poland's leading politicians, focused on selecting the new government after October national elections. Former European Council chief Donald Tusk, a centrist, who is expected to be the next Polish prime minister, has been a strong supporter of Ukraine. Still, he will not be able to avoid the concerns of the trucking industry, or Poland's struggling economy.
“The government is having pretend talks,” one high-ranking government official told Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, “What they’re really thinking is ‘let Tusk worry about this.’”
As tensions rise along the border, Ukraine and its truckers hope that the situation can be resolved. Borys, a Ukrainian trucker, toldWyborcza that he had been waiting in line for five days. “Somehow Germans don’t strike against Polish truckers, although you could also argue that Poles are taking jobs away from them, from the Belgians, and from the French,” said Borys. “We are not stealing Polish jobs.”.