A new conflict is brewing between Ukraine and Poland. This time it is about freight transport.
Polish carriers are threatening to block all border crossings with Ukraine from 3 November due to excessive competition after the liberalisation of international transport between Ukraine and the EU.
Initially, they mentioned only one border crossing point, Korczowa-Krakovets. But it became known later that the blockade might also affect the crossing points of Dorohusk-Yahodyn and Hrebenne-Rava-Ruska.
Protesters claim they can block the border for up to two months.
Even though they promise not to disrupt passenger transport and the import of military and humanitarian cargo into Ukraine, this blockade could seriously impact the Ukrainian economy.
Therefore, Kyiv plans to discuss it not only with the Polish authorities but also with the European Commission, citing a violation of memoranda on the capacity of Ukrainian-Polish crossing points. Polish demands are by default unacceptable to Ukraine. One of them would create a window for men of draft age to leave the country.
Fewer rights for Ukrainians
What are the protesters demanding? Some of them are technical, but some concern fundamental principles for Ukraine. The key demand is a return to the permit system for Ukrainian carriers to work in the EU.
The permits by Ukrainian companies have always been a contentious matter in relations with Poland. In 2021, Kyiv even announced the creation of an arbitration with the European Commission because Warsaw did not agree to permits for Ukrainian carriers, restricting the export of goods from Ukraine to the EU.
Everything changed in 2022. After the full-scale war with Russia, the European Union took unprecedented steps to back the Ukrainian economy.
In particular, the EU completely waived the requirement for Ukrainians to obtain the mentioned permits for a year and extended this provision until June 2024.
Now, Polish carriers demand the cancellation of this privilege and the return of the old permitting system.
And even that's not enough. The second demand of the Poles is the tightening of the transport rules for foreign carriers under the ECMT (European Conference of Ministers of Transport)."
The certificate of the European Conference of Ministers of Transport (ECEMT) is a document certifying the safety of a vehicle and its compliance with environmental requirements. Such a certificate is mandatory for freight transport to members of this intergovernmental transport organisation (including EU countries). It is issued in Ukraine based on the results of a vehicle inspection.
So, in their demands, which may sound absurd, the Poles, require tightening the issuance of such inspection certificates (without explaining how exactly).
In addition, there is a third demand – to prohibit Ukrainian companies from registering a company in Poland if the company's finances are located outside the EU. Ukrainians are only allowed to transport goods from Ukraine to the EU and back on a limited number of trips.
Of course, such demands are absolutely unacceptable to Kyiv.
In addition, there are several technical requirements. It appears that the blockade initiators at the Ukrainian border are actually targeting these demands. "Demand more to get what you want" – a universal negotiation strategy!
In particular, Polish carriers demand a separate queue for trucks with EU registration at Ukrainian border crossing points. They also propose a separate lane for empty trucks at each crossing point.
The last demand is granting access for Polish transport company drivers to the Shliakh (Path) system, which allows male drivers or volunteers to legally cross the border under martial law.
Is there room for compromise?
"We are always open to substantive dialogue when we see that there is room for discussion and the demands are not obviously unrealistic," comments Deputy Minister of Community Development, Territories, and Infrastructure, Serhii Derkach.
However, in his opinion, the current ultimatum from the Poles does not fit this description. Additional lanes for empty trucks may be opened by Kyiv, but they do not want to do it. The Ukrainian economy is interested in exports, not imports, as explained by the Ministry of Infrastructure. Potentially, Ukraine has room for concessions here.
As for the demand for a separate queue for vehicles from the EU, it is equally unacceptable.
It discriminates other carriers. "If the Ukrainian government were to suddenly agree to such a demand, the border would still be blocked, but this time by Ukrainian carriers," Viktor Dovhan, a former deputy minister of infrastructure, sarcastically points out. However, the expert acknowledges that there is room for improvement here.
The problem lies in the bugs of the system Shliakh, where trucks wait an average of 11 days to cross the border. "This is a very complex issue, but it all comes down to low border capacity. This problem needs to be addressed because the EU and the USA are willing to invest in opening new crossing points. Perhaps, as a temporary measure, priorities should be set, allowing military and humanitarian cargoes to pass first, followed by perishable goods, and then all others," suggests Dovhan.
Shliakh - set of problems
While the Ministry of Infrastructure provided substantive comments on all other points of the ultimatum, when it comes to Shliakh, the deputy minister acted as if the Poles simply didn't understand it, and the problem they claimed didn't exist.
"This demand surprises us because this system works only for Ukrainian carriers and is designed to allow drivers subject to military service to legitimately make trips during a state of war. The logic is that a Ukrainian company registers a Ukrainian driver for a trip, and he crosses the border. Therefore, there should be no need for foreign companies to use Shliakh," insists Serhii Derkach.
However, the deputy minister is clearly being disingenuous.
The Poles indeed have a real issue with Shliakh, and authorities in Kyiv are aware of it. The trips made by Polish carriers to war-torn Ukraine are predominantly conducted by Ukrainian long-haul truck drivers hired by them. Although the system formally grants permits for only employees of Ukrainian companies. In the past, Polish carriers found ways to register their Ukrainian employees.
However, this practice has now stopped. If a Ukrainian driver heads to Ukraine, driving a Polish truck, they won't be able to return.
It, in fact, cuts off Polish companies from the transportation market to Ukraine.
This information is confirmed by Viktor Dovhan, a former deputy minister of infrastructure for European integration. He points out that Polish drivers avoid trips to Ukraine, and that's why Polish transport companies are massively hiring Ukrainian drivers.
"Of course, the difficulties in signing up with Shlyakh prevent them from working on routes to Ukraine. They simply won't be able to return to Poland. It puts them in unequal conditions with employees of Ukrainian carrier companies, and, of course, it upsets the Poles," Dovhan explains.
Is it possible for Ukraine to make concessions to Poland on this issue? Theoretically, yes, but in reality, such a concession could have far-reaching consequences.
The Ukrainian state is not capable of verifying the employment of its citizens in Polish transport companies. It will only be a matter of time before individual Polish carriers start selling places in Shliakh to dishonest Ukrainians who simply want to avoid mobilisation. Border guards also face an insurmountable challenge: how can they determine whether a Ukrainian driver who works for a Polish company is trying to escape military conscription?
In general, Kyiv is only complicating the procedure for leaving the country, and making it more lenient would be politically difficult. Without addressing this issue, other border procedure improvements will not make practical sense for Polish carriers because they will mostly be unable to travel to Ukraine in the first place.
Ahead of tough talks
However, it's essential to remember the demands from the Polish side that are fundamentally unacceptable to Ukraine. The main issue is that Polish carriers are extremely dissatisfied with increased competition from Ukrainians and vehemently oppose the continuation of the "transport visa-free" regime. For Kyiv, the continuation of free movement is of vital importance.
"We are hearing this demand from the Polish market not for the first time. All parties know that it is impossible to fulfil," says Serhii Derkach. He reminds us that the EU took this step in response to the war and the maritime blockade. "So the logic is that as long as there is no access to the sea, all logistics are provided by land, and this agreement is in effect," he explains.
The current blockade resembles "reconnaissance by battle" before the complex negotiations in the European Commission that will begin next year.
Currently, the Polish side is demonstrating that its business is committed.
However, Kyiv has enough time to negotiate with the new Polish government on terms that will be acceptable to both Polish and Ukrainian carriers.
The success of these negotiations will depend to a significant extent on who becomes the Minister of Transport in the new Polish government. Among the candidates is the former head of the board of Ukrzaliznytsia, Wojciech Balczun, which could be a favourable option for Ukraine.
Nevertheless, one should not expect too much flexibility from the new Polish government. Kyiv needs to prepare for very tough negotiations. Preserving the current preferential regime in its current form will be very challenging.
European Pravda, editor