Polish truckers have extended their blockade along the border with Ukraine to protest against competition from Ukrainian drivers, some of whom have been stuck for 17 days in freezing temperatures, in a further blow to Kyiv’s trade and war efforts against Russia.
Backed by local Polish farmers and their tractors, lorry drivers on Thursday blocked the key border crossing at Medyka, expanding a protest that started at three other crossings on November 6.
Two Ukrainian truckers waiting to cross have since died, according to officials and labour unions in Kyiv, as queues stretching as far as 25 kilometres formed on both sides of the border at several crossings.
More than 1,000 Ukrainian trucks were already queueing at Medyka early on Thursday, local media reported. Only passenger vehicles and trucks carrying military equipment or humanitarian aid were allowed to cross unobstructed. Protesters have warned that their blockade could be maintained until January.
Early last year Medyka was one of the main gateways for refugees fleeing Ukraine to Poland and other parts of the EU. The border crossing is also close to the south-eastern Polish city of Rzeszów, which became a big transit hub for military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine following Russia’s full-scale invasion.
Ukrainian officials criticised the protest’s escalation. Taras Kachka, deputy economy minister for trade, said the dispute should be solved “at the negotiating table . . . but not on the road during the winter where damage is caused not only to the economies but to the health and life of drivers stuck there”.
“There is snow and freezing temperatures on the roads, with people stuck without access to proper sanitary conditions,” Kachka said on Ukrainian television on Thursday.
Following the casualties, Ukraine’s embassy in Warsaw issued a fresh demand to Polish authorities to break up the protest. “It is extremely important to save lives, stop the blocking of motor vehicles and give drivers the opportunity to return home without hindrance,” the embassy said in a note.
Ukraine’s association of road cargo truckers warned €400mn in revenue has been lost because of the blockade. The situation could worsen given that truckers in neighbouring Slovakia have also temporarily blocked border crossings with Ukraine, it said.
“The situation is the same both in Poland and Slovakia — what they are doing is violating the European Union treaty [that prohibits] blocking the checkpoints,” said Volodymyr Balin, vice-president of Ukraine’s truckers association.
On Wednesday, long queues formed at the main Hungarian border crossing with Ukraine, as drivers sought to circumvent Poland and Slovakia.
Ukraine’s ambassador to Poland has called the protest “a painful stab in Ukraine’s back” and the government in Warsaw has urged the drivers to lift their blockade.
But the outgoing government led by the rightwing Law and Justice (PiS) party, which has stalled the comeback to power of Donald Tusk as prime minister, is avoiding a full-on confrontation with truckers who are the logistical cornerstone of the Polish economy. Tusk is expected to return to office after leading a coalition of parties to victory in parliamentary elections in October.
The Polish truckers have written to the European Commission to demand that the EU restore transport quotas for Ukrainian trucks that were lifted last year to help Kyiv’s war against Russia. The commission has said this was a bilateral issue.
“It is good that the European Union decided to open the border in a critical war situation, but this should not last and allow Ukrainian carriers to establish themselves on our market,” Jan Buczek, president of the Polish association of international road carriers, told the Financial Times.
Poland has the EU’s largest truck fleet and its drivers’ complaints are also seen as a harbinger of the tough trade negotiations awaiting Ukraine before it can join the EU.
Ukraine’s exports to the EU are transported increasingly by road since Russia’s full-scale invasion last year. Road transport accounted for 43 per cent of the overall value of Ukrainian exports to the EU, according to Natalia Shpygotska, deputy head of research at Kyiv-based investment bank Dragon Capital.
The Polish blockade hurts particularly Ukrainian exports of wood and furniture, car parts and vegetable oils. It is also endangering the one-quarter of imported fuel supplies that Ukraine transports by road via Poland, Shpygotska added.
Tymofiy Mylovanov, president of the Kyiv School of Economics and an adviser to Ukraine’s government, said some Ukrainian businesses had already been pushed into crisis by the Polish blockade, citing the example of a building materials producer that lost 60 per cent of its export business as a result.
The blockade also deepens a trade dispute between Warsaw and Kyiv after imports of Ukrainian grain were banned to protect Polish farmers, despite that measure violating the EU’s common trade policy.
Ukraine’s Black Sea ports in the Odesa region continue to function despite Russian attacks, making Poland less important for Ukrainian grain exports, say analysts.
Chicago wheat futures climbed 1 per cent to a near two-week high on Wednesday in response to the latest Russian attacks on Odesa rather than the near-closure of the Polish border, said Andrey Sizov, managing director of Black Sea grain consultancy SovEcon.
Additional reporting by Andy Bounds in Brussels