Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 22 September 2023


Poland’s dam­aging quar­rel with Ukraine

One of Kyiv’s staunchest sup­port­ers is under­min­ing its cred­ib­il­ity, and the EU’s

Ever since Vladi­mir Putin launched his war of aggres­sion against Ukraine, Poland has stood shoulder to shoulder with its stricken neigh­bour, provid­ing it with weaponry, sup­ply lines and a warm wel­come for more than a mil­lion refugees flee­ing the con­flict. Warsaw’s repeated warn­ings before the inva­sion about the Krem­lin’s weapon­isa­tion of energy sup­plies to Europe and about west­ern delu­sions of “enga­ging” with Putin were vin­dic­ated. Such solid­ar­ity and foresight have enhanced its stand­ing in Europe, des­pite con­cerns about rule of law breaches and demo­cratic back­slid­ing under its cur­rent con­ser­vat­ive nation­al­ist lead­er­ship.

That gain in moral author­ity has made it all the more shock­ing to wit­ness the recent dis­play of hos­til­ity by Pol­ish lead­ers towards Kyiv in a row over grain exports. It may not be alto­gether sur­pris­ing, with Poland in the midst of a bit­terly fought elec­tion cam­paign. Yet the lan­guage has been stark.

Pres­id­ent Andrzej Duda, aligned with the rul­ing Law and Justice party, likened Ukraine to a drown­ing man pulling his res­cuer down to a watery death — an ana­logy that is both in bad taste and grossly exag­ger­ated. After Ukraine’s pres­id­ent Volodymyr Zelenskyy sug­ges­ted the snip­ing from Warsaw was doing Rus­sia’s bid­ding, Poland’s prime min­is­ter Mateusz Mor­awiecki appeared to threaten a halt in weapons dona­tions to Kyiv. Warsaw has also hin­ted it may not extend the cur­rent level of sup­port to Ukrain­ian refugees bey­ond 2024.

The trig­ger for the dis­pute was the European Com­mis­sion’s decision last week to lift a ban on Ukrain­ian grain exports to five neigh­bour­ing EU states — Poland, Slov­akia, Hun­gary, Romania and Bul­garia. The ban, which excludes ship­ments in transit, was intro­duced in

May after Poland, Slov­akia and Hun­gary intro­duced uni­lat­eral curbs — illeg­ally, since it is the EU that sets trade rules. Brus­sels did assess, however, that local EU farm­ers were being under­cut by cheap Ukrain­ian grain, even cough­ing up €100mn to com­pensate them. Last week it con­cluded those price dis­tor­tions had dis­ap­peared and there was no need for a ban as long as Kyiv put in place an export licens­ing regime to pre­vent future dump­ing. However, Poland, Slov­akia and Hun­gary refused to com­ply and intro­duced their own curbs.

It may be tempt­ing to min­im­ise the clash as elec­tion­eer­ing — or, in Hun­gary’s case, the usual Ukraine-bash­ing. Slov­akia goes to the polls on Septem­ber 30 and fron­trun­ner Robert Fico opposes aid­ing Ukraine. Poland’s Law and Justice is on course to lose its par­lia­ment­ary major­ity in elec­tions on Octo­ber 15. It needs to shore up its rural vote and fend off the Ukraine-scep­tic far-right.

But Warsaw’s grub­bing for a few votes comes at a high price, and not just to its moral author­ity. Grain exports are an eco­nomic life­line and vital source of hard cur­rency for Ukraine. Its gain greatly out­weighs Pol­ish farm­ers’ pain.

Brus­sels, per­haps sens­ibly, believes there can be a nego­ti­ated way out of the grain impasse, and talks between Kyiv and its neigh­bours are now under way. But the EU’s cred­ib­il­ity, in this case over trade, has been dam­aged. The vit­riol over grain prices surely dis­pels any illu­sions about a smooth enlarge­ment of the EU to Ukraine and the west­ern Balkans, the bloc’s next big mis­sion.

Poland may ulti­mately not stop send­ing arms to Kyiv; it can­not afford to see Ukraine fal­ter and Rus­sia become a big­ger men­ace. But by threat­en­ing to with­hold weapons, it has given cover to other cap­it­als — or putat­ive lead­ers — who are less com­mit­ted to Ukraine’s vic­tory. Fur­ther­more, it risks reas­sur­ing Putin that his cal­cu­la­tion of wait­ing until the west tires of war is the right one. For a Pol­ish gov­ern­ment, it is hard to ima­gine a more self-defeat­ing strategy.

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