Poland-Ukraine trade war: an end to the honeymoon

The war has come to Poland! However, it has not arrived in the form that the media parrots and paid hacks have been threatening for years: i.e. of Putin’s tanks rolling up to the Vistula to restore the Russian Empire. Instead, the borders of Poland are being guarded against fleets of grain coming from Ukraine, which threaten something at least as precious to every capitalist as independence: the market.

The latest row over grain from Ukraine is the second round in a sparring match between Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia on one side, and Ukraine on the other. Previously, when these five states (illegally) introduced a ban on the import of Ukrainian grain in May, the European Commission stepped in to limit the conflict between its “partners”. All this led to was a formal, temporary pan-European ban on Ukrainian grain imports in place of the unilateral ban that these countries had imposed.

Having no real solution, the EU buried its head in the sand, hoping that the problem would resolve itself. In the end, someone was inevitably going to lose out. Ultimately, the question of whether Europe’s border would open up to Ukrainian grain was in the hands of those same bordering countries that introduced embargoes a few months ago. It should come as no surprise then that once the official EU embargo ended, the embargoes imposed by these same states returned.

Zelensky headed straight to the UN General Assembly to express his (surely feigned) surprise, and to give his European ‘friends’ a piece of his mind. “Some in Europe,” he said – without naming names and without needing to – are treating solidarity like a piece of “political theatre” – they’re “making thriller from the grain”. Poland’s rulers weren’t going to take a telling off from Zelensky. After all, it’s him who needs them, not vice versa. Former Prime Minister Szydło called Zelensky’s speech “insinuations unworthy of such a serious politician,” while Marcin Prydacz, the president’s advisor found his remarks “astounding and unfair”. President Duda himself went further, comparing Ukraine to “a drowning man”, and as he explained, “anyone who has ever taken part in rescuing a drowning man knows that he is incredibly dangerous… he can drag you down to the depths.”

The spat didn’t stop at a war of words. Ukraine, in turn, filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO) and announced the possibility of its own embargo on Polish tomatoes, onions, cabbages and apples, while Prime Minister Morawiecki warned that if introduced, these would be met with an escalation on the part of Poland. He also announced the end of new supplies of arms to Ukraine.

But this has all gone to the wind now, as the frantic PiS politicians face the likely prospect of losing their majority in the coming elections on 15 October. They are desperately looking to scrape a few additional percentage points of support, with an eye to post-election manoeuvres and coalition negotiations. And indeed, as many as two-thirds of Poles support the government in its trade war, and indeed, PiS has edged a little higher in the polls, albeit by a marginal 2-3 percent points.


Polish pm Image UNclimatechange FlickrUkrainian grain is creating disenchantment with the war among a key conservative, rural constituency for the ruling PiS party / Image: UNclimatechange, Flickr

Ukrainian grain, by threatening the livelihoods of Poland’s many small farmers, is creating disenchantment with the war among a key conservative, rural constituency for the ruling PiS party.

Compared to the rest of Europe, Polish agriculture is based to a much greater degree on small holders – only 11 percent of agricultural land belongs to large and medium-sized farms (those over 20 hectares). Even medium to large farms are, in the vast majority of cases, cultivated directly by people who own them.

These small farms, especially since Poland’s inclusion in the European market, are systematically squeezed by competition – in the 10 years since 2010, as many as 200,000 small farms have disappeared. Additional competition from Ukrainian agricultural giants which are able to produce much more efficiently would be the final nail in the coffin for many Polish farmers.

Prices of agricultural products in eastern Poland were already low in April this year, but continued to fall since, despite the embargo. While in April a tonne of rapeseed could be sold for PLN 2,525 and grain for PLN 700, in September a tonne of rapeseed could make PLN 1,960, and for grain as little as 500. For nearly 1.5 million Poles working in agriculture and for their family members, any loosening of trade with Ukraine is an existential threat to their livelihoods.

With elections looming, this is a problem for the ruling party, which is struggling to combat the growing popularity of the far-right Konfederacja (Confederation), which feeds on anti-Ukrainian sentiment and is posing itself as better defenders of Catholic, conservative small farmers than the PiS.

No permanent friends

President Andrzej Duda, in a moment of clarity, pointed to the essence of the problem: “I understand that for the great oligarchs of industrial agriculture in Ukraine [...] it is easiest to sell grain on the closest market – and the first one from the border is Polish, and hence it’s the easiest, the closest one with cheapest transport. But we can not afford to allow it, because we also have our interests.”

Duda Image Jakub Szymczuk Wikimedia CommonsPoland was among the most belligerent supporters of NATO’s war effort to bleed Russia in Ukraine / Image: Jakub Szymczuk, Wikimedia Commons

Duda, in his own way, has reiterated that truth about the national divisions of the capitalist class that were expressed much more eloquently by Lord Palmerston: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”

The latest turn of events is quite remarkable. Poland was, along with the US, Britain and the Baltic states, among the most belligerent supporters of NATO’s war effort to bleed Russia in Ukraine. There used to be talk of unconditional support for Ukraine until a victorious end to the war, until the recapture of Donbass, Crimea, and even until the overthrow of the “madman” Putin, when the Russian “barbarians” would be forced to accept “democracy”. President Duda even seemed willing to contemplate World War 3 by calling for NATO to discuss triggering Article 4 in response to a stray missile landing in Polish territory, allegedly from Russia (although subsequently proven to have been fired by Ukraine).

Above all, the ‘unconditional’ support of Poland’s ruling class for Ukraine had one very hard condition: hands off our markets! As the war goes from bad to worse for the West with the Ukrainian offensive stalling, and with governments facing the social and economic blowback of the war, the cracks are rapidly opening up in the ‘western alliance’.

At a time when billions of people lack food and even in the ‘rich’ countries, food prices are rising dramatically, millions of tonnes of food are waiting at the borders because they threaten the political interests of capitalist cliques. These parasitic cliques must be swept away. Only on this basis will we be able to feed every person on Earth and provide a stable, dignified existence for ordinary people.

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