September 15 Crisis: New Test for Ukraine-Poland Relations

Monday, 11 September 2023 — , European Pravda, Karpacz - Kyiv
Credit: Adam Wysocki/East News
Poland is increasing pressure on Ukraine to persuade it not to challenge the agro-export ban.

The "honeymoon period" in Ukraine-Poland relations is coming to an end. The sharp statements from high-ranking officials in Kyiv and Warsaw over the past few months only reinforce this impression.

But what is really happening between Ukraine and Poland? Do the current problems have an electoral basis? Can we hope for a speedy improvement? Conversely, are they systemic and likely to worsen in the future?

EuroPravda sought answers to these questions during the Economic Forum in the Polish city of Karpacz. The reflections below come from often informal conversations with Polish experts, business representatives, and politicians.

First of all, all of the interviewees are convinced of Poland's continued support for Ukraine's resistance in the war with Russia. Warsaw traditionally separates the matter of security from other issues where there may be misunderstandings and disputes between our countries.

Among the problems worthy of mention is the fatigue of Polish society from Ukrainian refugees. However, this issue has not yet become critical enough to impact relations between the two countries. The same goes for the Ukrainian moratorium on search and exhumation work.

A much more significant problem is the current dispute caused by a ban on exports of Ukrainian agricultural products to Poland (as well as to Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria).

The ban was imposed by the European Commission, but it is only valid till September 15. Currently, it is unlikely that the ban will be extended by the European Commission, despite proposals from the affected countries.

Instead, Poland and Hungary threaten to maintain the ban at the national level, which is a clear violation of the principle of the EU single market.

Poland's position is undoubtedly driven by politics – parliamentary elections will take place in Ukraine’s neighbour country on October 15, and victory does not appear certain for the sitting government.

In this situation, the current Polish government is not willing to risk losing the votes of Polish farmers, so they cannot agree to lift the ban. The irony here is that the ban has already impacted large-scale Polish businesses interested in cheap raw materials from Ukraine. However, as the elections approach, their position is no longer taken into account.

Is there any reason to believe that this problem will disappear after the October 15 elections?

Unfortunately, no.

Firstly, it seems that there is consensus among Polish politicians on this issue. The opposition has avoided criticising the government's decision.

Furthermore, one of the most high-profile aspects of these elections was the inclusion of Michał Kołodziejczak from Agrounia, a farmers' association that protested against Ukrainian grain, in the opposition's list of the Civic Platform.

In such a situation, even if the opposition wins and there is a change of government in Poland, it will not automatically lead to the lifting of the ban.

Secondly, there is a significant chance that the elections will not lead to the immediate formation of a new majority and the appointment of a government. Coalition negotiations may be protracted, and the new coalition could be unstable.

In such a situation, political forces will act while considering the possibility of early elections and, consequently, the cancellation of the ban will appear as a risky step even after the elections.

Therefore, Kyiv's decision to legally challenge the announced unilateral ban by Poland seems like a logical step. Such arbitration does take time, and it would be impractical if the ban were to last for just a few months. However, if it is extended, Kyiv has no other option.

The Ukrainian government has already announced plans to challenge Poland's actions in the case of a unilateral ban.

The attitude of the Polish people toward Kyiv's move is quite telling. Most of the people EuroPravda spoke to argued that Warsaw is not afraid of this threat, saying that Poland already has many legal disputes with its neighbours (for example, with Czechia), but they consider this as the right course of action to protect national interests.

Considering that these legal disputes may last for a considerable time, it is always possible to settle matters with neighbours through compromise, thus safeguarding national interests.

However, it's not that simple. It seems that the Polish government is genuinely concerned about potential damage to its image, especially if Kyiv becomes active in this matter.

"Do you understand that if the Ukrainian government accuses Poland of causing famine in Africa and puts Warsaw on the same level as Moscow, it will deal a powerful blow to the relations between our countries?" said one of EuroPravda's interviewees.

According to him, such actions by Kyiv could increase the popularity of the Confederation, the only political force in the country that openly promotes anti-Ukrainian narratives.

As an example, they cite historical disputes, including those related to the Volyn tragedy. Interviewees close to the Polish government argue that they have tried to avoid strong statements and politicization of the anniversary of events in Volhynia until the very end, but this only gave points to the Confederation.

The Ukrainian government understands this weak point in Warsaw's position.

In a very telling move, the Ukrainian government promised to challenge the Polish ban in the World Trade Organization (WTO). At first glance, this decision may seem strange because Kyiv has an alternative tool at its disposal — arbitration under the Association Agreement with the EU.

This tool carries more weight than WTO arbitration. Moreover, the WTO's appellate mechanism is currently blocked, so any arbitration decision cannot become binding.

However, Kyiv has chosen the WTO tool primarily to create international pressure on Poland.

In WTO arbitration, any country interested in this dispute can join as a third party. It is evident that this dispute will interest Global South countries, especially African countries, who will join this dispute in support of Ukraine's position.

And therein lies the realisation of Warsaw's fear that it will be accused of supporting Russia's actions causing "famine in Africa."

As a result, in the coming weeks, Kyiv will face tremendous pressure to abandon such arbitration. All possible arguments will be employed including Ukraine's "ingratitude" for Poland's military support.

The consequences of this conflict may continue to affect Ukraine-Poland relations for many years to come.

Publications in the "Expert Opinion" section are not editorial articles and solely reflect the authors' viewpoints.

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