Espreso. Global

Polish truckers' protests: Ukraine's European integration will not be easy. Column by Vitaliy Portnikov

8 November, 2023 Wednesday

In any developed economy, like those in Europe, competition is essential, and it follows the same rules for everyone

The recent attempt by Polish transport companies to block the border crossings between Poland and Ukraine to stop the flow of goods from Ukraine into the European Union serves as a reminder of how challenging Ukraine's journey towards European integration can be. Not long ago, we witnessed protests from Polish farmers who requested limits on the sale of Ukrainian agricultural products in Poland. Now, we see another sector of the Polish economy attempting to stifle competition through unconventional means.

Both in the case of the Polish farmers' protest and the actions of Polish carriers, it seems like there's a desire to undermine agreements that Ukraine has already made with the European Union. Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there was a system where Poland granted permits to Ukrainian carriers for the transportation of goods, creating favorable conditions for its own citizens in the process.

Back then, Poland's actions went against agreements between Ukraine and the European Union. After the major conflict, the Polish government didn't give in to Ukraine. Instead, they started following international agreements required as an EU member. This means Polish carriers don't have a real chance to return to the system before the full-scale invasion. Surprisingly, they aren't talking to Ukraine's leaders. Instead, they're asking their own government to make a decision that would favor Polish carriers over Ukrainian ones.

The situation of Polish carriers isn't the same as that of Polish farmers. A political group called "Confederation," which isn't very friendly toward Ukraine and leans towards Russia, supported both protests. During elections, the ruling right-wing populist party "Law and Justice" in Poland was concerned that the "Confederation" might take away their support from agrarian voters. In response, "Law and Justice" essentially followed the path of the organizers of this anti-Ukrainian protest, damaging relations with Ukraine. Leaders of this political group, like President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, were known for their statements that harmed the good relationship and cooperation between Poland and Ukraine, which had been demonstrated after Russia's attack on Ukraine.

However, these tactics dealt a significant blow to the Polish right-wing populists themselves. They may have won some of the "Confederation" voters, but the anti-Ukrainian party didn't perform well in the new Polish Diet and lost its relevance. But "Law and Justice" alienated its moderate supporters. Even though they won the parliamentary elections, it's clear that right-wing representatives won't stay in power, as they lack the majority required to form a new Polish government.

Consequently, their time in power will come to an end soon. Poland's relationships with the European Commission, as well as its western and eastern neighbors like Germany and Ukraine, which are crucial in its European role, will start to improve. The process of rectifying the catastrophic mistakes made by the right-wing populists during their troubled tenure in Poland will begin.

Additionally, efforts to heal social divisions will commence. The protests we see are largely a result of the irresponsible populist policies of the past years, particularly during the last two terms when the Polish right-wing populists were in charge of the country.

This doesn't mean that Ukraine's path to European integration will be without challenges when it comes to economic interests. We recognize that in any economy, it's natural to want to outdo the competition. I vividly recall the days when Poland was integrating with Europe. In Western European countries, many were reluctant about this integration. They made every effort to keep their borders closed to Poles, fearing that Poles would pose stiff competition in their job markets. The idea of the "Polish plumber" flooding the French job market and displacing local workers became a popular meme during that time, which Poles still remember from their own integration process.

When Poland eventually became an equal member of the European Union, and its citizens gained access to the European job market, no catastrophe unfolded. The European economies thrived, just as they will when Ukraine joins the EU.

Certainly, competition will intensify, but competition is the bedrock of any modern economy, governed by shared rules. In such scenarios, there are always winners and losers. Yet, attempts to stifle competition by roadblocks or restrictions on products from neighboring countries are actions out of step with a market economy. These practices are what’s left of outdated socialist ideas that persist even in a truly open economy.

In this new context, it's evident that protests by Polish carriers won't achieve much except to underscore the importance of upholding the agreements Ukraine has made with the European Union. These reminders emphasize that no EU member had to alter these agreements to create an illusion for their citizens that winning at someone else's expense is possible.

About the author. Vitaly Portnikov, journalist, Shevchenko National Prize laureate

The editors do not always share the opinions expressed by the blog authors.

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