Anger over cheap Ukrainian imports is spilling onto the streets
Across Europe’s East in recent weeks, farmers have been protesting over Ukrainian grain flooding local markets and undercutting prices. Thousands of farmers in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland formed long convoys of tractors, blocking border crossings with farm vehicles that has resulted in the resignation of at least one leading minister.
Poland, Romania and Hungary, all of which border Ukraine and are members of the EU, have struggled with a glut of grain and other Ukrainian agricultural products since last year, when tariffs on goods from Ukraine were lifted. Logistical difficulties in moving the Ukrainian grain out of central European states has pushed local prices down, threatening the livelihoods of farmers in the region. Ukrainian farmers, for their part, say the protests are political.
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But according to the National Association of Bulgarian Grain Producers, 40% of last year’s grain and sunflower harvest remains unsold. “Bulgaria is in solidarity with Ukraine, but a local glut is being created on the agricultural market, because instead of export corridors our countries are becoming warehouses,” Bulgaria’s agriculture minister Yavor Gechev said. Meanwhile, Romanian farmers protesting in Bucharest on Friday held signs reading: “Do not punish our solidarity,” while others urged European Union officials to “take responsibility, take action, take care.”
The EU recently approved €56.3m in compensation for Bulgarian, Polish and Romanian farmers, but anger remains. Earlier this month, Poland’s agriculture minister, Henryk Kowalczyk, was called Judas and hit with eggs during a panel discussion with the EU agriculture commissioner. Kowalczyk then resigned over the European Commission’s decision to extend duty-free imports for Ukrainian grain until June 2024.
Such is the sensitivity of the issue in Poland that Volodomyr Zelenskyy’s visit to Warsaw was met with a smattering of farmer protests in the area. In response, a temporary agreement to halt Ukrainian grain deliveries to Poland was reached between the two countries shortly after. Poland’s new agriculture minister has since vowed to introduce detailed quality controls on the massive inflow of grain from Ukraine transiting through the country, and to make sure none of it spills into the Polish market.
With elections in Poland due later this year, one of Ukraine’s biggest backers may feel pressured into taking a back seat. The electoral base of the governing Law and Justice Party is grounded in support from rural voters, who are likely to be sympathetic to the demands of Poland’s farmers. “We will not leave farmers alone,” the party’s spokesman promised, saying that “in coming days and weeks, further important decisions will be made.”