1701252077 Poland calls for thousands of Ukrainian trucks to be blocked

Poland calls for thousands of Ukrainian trucks to be blocked at the border

The Polish farmers’ picket shelters from the cold in a tent with a stove and a tray of freshly roasted sausages. There are also cookies, hot drinks and music. Last Sunday there was a lively atmosphere. It has been four days since they had to cut the Medyka border between Poland and Ukraine for hours under the snow, a protest against the free movement of Ukrainian transport in the European Union: their blockade is now carried out by their own police. The demonstrators only allow two trucks to pass every two hours. “Now the cut is being carried out by the police to avoid conflicts with Ukrainian drivers and because it is uncomfortable to be in the middle of the asphalt in these low temperatures,” explained Mikolai Toborowicz, one of the dozen farmers who were at the store on Sunday .

According to testimonies collected by EL PAÍS, hundreds of commercial vehicles in Medyka wait an average of six days to cross the border. Conditions for drivers are unsanitary, with no toilets or opportunity to wash or get hot food, provided only by Ukrainian government envoys or NGOs such as World Central Kitchen, led by Spanish chef José Andrés. Garbage and feces accumulate on the shoulder. There is also no medical care and two Ukrainian truck drivers suffering from health problems have already died in the cabins of their vehicles without anyone noticing the emergency.

Organizations of transport companies and farmers from eastern Poland, one of the European countries that has most vocally defended the need to support Ukraine in the wake of Russian aggression, have coordinated since November 6 to close four border crossings. They assure that they will not stop humanitarian aid deliveries, the transport of perishable products, tankers of fuel or the transfer of military materials. But his word is not always kept. A Polish driver from World Central Kitchen, who wishes to remain anonymous, assures that humanitarian aid convoys, if they consist of several vehicles, also have to accept long waiting times, “they are only given preference if there are one or two.” Yevhen Rubanko drives a diesel tanker. Since the border blockade began, people have had to wait three days to enter Ukraine. Before the protests it only took me four or five hours.

The pickets have received permission from the Polish government to maintain the blockade until next January and have already requested an extension until February. The demands they make are varied, but they agree on one point: they consider the free movement of the Ukrainian transport sector and agricultural products to be unfair competition because they now have the same rights as EU companies, but without them having to comply with regulatory requirements.

Pickets of Polish farmers block the border with Ukraine in Medyka, November 26.Picket of Polish farmers blocking the border with Ukraine in Medyka on November 26th. Cristian Segura

The demonstrators reject the European Commission’s order to temporarily allow Ukrainian transport to operate under the same conditions as companies from an EU member state. This is a clemency measure to support a country under attack in Europe’s largest war since 1945. A country that, moreover, can only make minimal use of its main export market due to the threat from Russian warships. the sea route through the Black Sea. According to a spokeswoman for the Ukrainian Ministry of Infrastructure Development, this route accounted for 80% of exports before the Russian invasion.

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Temperatures below zero

This ministry estimates that the losses to its economy in the more than 20 days of the blockade have already amounted to over 400 million euros. In a statement on November 26, Ukrainian authorities put the number of trucks blocked on the three closed roads at 2,000. Attempts at bilateral negotiations between governments, including direct dialogue between the Ukrainian executive and the protesters, have been unsuccessful. “The time for a compromise is over,” said Deputy Infrastructure Minister Serhii Derkach on November 24th: “Our drivers are suffering in sub-zero temperatures because a few people acted with the consent of the local authorities.” We have warned this several times so that they can do so Food, emergency and fire services and appropriate sanitary conditions are provided. There is none of that.” For his ministry, the only solution now is for the EU to send a surveillance team to the border.

Derkach also confirmed that the Polish government is not complying with the agreement signed by the EU to ensure the free movement of Ukrainian transport companies. President Volodymyr Zelensky is committed to a conciliatory approach to a military ally and a country that has taken in two million Ukrainians displaced by the war. “We have to be cautious in our reaction. We have to give our neighbors time, the situation will improve,” the president said, pointing out that the solution will be political. Zelensky is confident that a possible change of government in Warsaw will make the agreement easier. After the Polish elections last October, all indications are that the liberal and pro-European Donald Tusk will form a coalition cabinet after current Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s attempt to create a nationalist Law and Justice party failed.

A Ukrainian driver fills his vehicle with antifreeze in Medyka on November 26.A Ukrainian driver adds antifreeze to his vehicle in Medyka on November 26.Cristian Segura

“These people are terrorists or they are like pirates in Libya, and the worst thing is that there are only a few of them, but they have the support of Warsaw,” said Mijailo Vinar, driver of a truck transporting construction materials from Poland to Lviv. Vinar planned to cross the Medyka border last Sunday after seven days on the road and live in the hut without the opportunity to shower or go to the toilet. Before the lockdown, I only had to wait a day and a half. Vinar says he understands the unrest in Poland because working conditions in Ukraine are more favorable than in the neighboring country, but assures that he and his compatriots only make money through imports and exports to Ukraine.

The protesters claim the opposite: Ukrainian transport companies are loading products between EU countries at three times lower wages and without complying with European standards such as weekly rest periods. In a November 10 report for the Ukrainian consulting firm GMK, Yurii Shchuklin, an industry businessman and member of the Ukrainian employers’ association EBA, admitted that the war had led transport companies to acquire an excessive fleet of vehicles for use in Ukraine become EU: “These vehicles are a surplus that replaces Polish trucks when they also have to wait in the same queues.”

Shchuklin admits that Poland’s demand for a return to the quota system of EU driving licenses for Ukrainians is logical, but not according to the pre-invasion quotas as they demand, as this would mean the collapse of their economy.

Karol is a Polish transport operator who has been traveling to Ukraine for seven years. He arrived in Medyka on November 21 and hoped to cross the border on November 26 with his shipment of household appliances. The blockade affected him like the Ukrainian truck drivers, but he sympathized with his fellow demonstrators. And he added that customs officials on the Ukrainian side give priority to Ukrainian vehicles.

“We are not anti-Ukrainian”

“We are not anti-Ukrainian, I spent two months taking in refugees in my house,” says Toborowicz, “but I have to defend the survival of our small family business.” The grain market in his region, says the 28-year-old, is with it Ukrainian grain has been flooded and prices have fallen to less than 30 percent of pre-war prices. Toborowicz emphasizes that they cannot compete with the Ukrainian agricultural industry, which does not meet EU quality requirements and is in the hands of oligarchs and large corporations: “Some in Ukraine make a lot of money thanks to the EU.” His brother Jakub adds that Ukrainians could export more across the Black Sea and is skeptical about the real threat posed by the Russian fleet.

Tensions and populist messages are increasing at the border, including in Krakovets. “You already know who is behind all this: Russia, which bribed the pickets,” said Roman Shumilo, a Ukrainian driver bringing construction materials to the Netherlands. Shumilo is angry because he charges per trip rather than per working day, and the blockage means he is losing income. Also for his company, he adds, because they can sell less. This man, like other Ukrainian transport companies, refers to the information spread by pro-government media that the leader of the protests of Polish transport companies, Rafal Mekler, is a pro-Russian agent. Mekler is the leader of the far-right Confederation Party in the city of Lublin, which is accused of being anti-Ukrainian and close to Vladimir Putin’s Russian ultranationalism.

A truck with the flags of Ukraine and the EU at the Medyka border point on November 26th.A truck with the flags of Ukraine and the EU at the Medyka border point, on November 26th. Cristian Segura

“Ukrainians are already using their propaganda brains and their most influential voices to slander me and the protest,” Mekler wrote on his social media, “if something happens to me, everyone will know who is to blame.”

The history of Ukraine and Poland is marked by territorial conflicts and violence. The city of Krakovets was the scene of bloody chapters, as the American historian Bernard Wasserstein explains in his book “A Ukrainian City (Gutenberg Galaxy)”. When Putin invaded Ukraine, the disputes seemed to be a thing of the past. “The Poles replaced the violent hostility of earlier times with an abundance of good neighborliness and hospitality,” notes Wasserstein. “Krakowets was a military and border post for so long […]it became a place of hugs, and Ukrainians and Poles showed themselves as European brothers.”

The reality has proven more complex and will become even more complex as Ukraine begins negotiating its EU accession. “The Poles are doing to us what the French unions did to them, and our journey to Europe has just begun,” Shumilo remembers from the cab of his truck, “but the worst thing is that they weren’t invaded.” from Russia.”

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