Graindämmerung for Poland’s Populists?

Published on 15th May 2023

With Polish farmers coming out in droves to protest and disavow the country’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, the parliamentary elections this fall have become much more interesting. Can PiS claw its way out of the latest hole that it has dug for itself?

WARSAW – A new, unprecedented grain crisis is upon us. It will have far-reaching consequences for Ukraine, the European Union, Africa, and possibly many other parts of the world. In Poland, especially, the general election this fall may now hinge on the issue.

The roots of the crisis lie in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, when the EU exempted Ukraine from its agricultural-import tariffs and quotas in order to help its beleaguered economy. Under special “solidarity corridors,” grain from Ukraine was allowed into the EU without the usual mandatory checks for cleanliness, traces of heavy metals or pesticides, and so forth.

The assumption was that these shipments would remain in the EU for only a short time before proceeding to their final recipients elsewhere in the world. Yet because the exemption made Ukrainian grain much cheaper than Polish grain, things did not go as planned. At least three million tons of grain from Ukraine entered Poland without inspection, where domestic feed manufacturers immediately snapped it up and are now selling the flour that they made with it or keeping it in storage.

It was called “technical grain,” although this informal notion never existed before. Only consumption grain is suitable for flour and feed, whereas technical grain is supposed to go to companies producing heating pellets or biofuels. Different chemicals are used to grow grain depending on its intended use. While the EU has restrictive rules for grain cultivation based on these distinctions, Ukraine does not. We therefore do not know what was in this batch of Ukrainian grain.

As early as the summer of 2022, Polish opposition politicians warned that a serious problem was brewing in the countryside. “There is a war, there is a blockade of ports, more and more shipments with agricultural products are going from Ukraine through Poland to other countries, but from the point of view of Polish farmers, this means that some of these grains will be sold here in Poland at significantly lower prices,” noted former Prime Minister Donald Tusk. “We all want to help Ukraine, this is indisputable,” he continued, “but it also needs to be organized in such a way that aid to Ukraine does not mean some very severe losses for Polish farmers.”

Poland’s ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS), reacted strongly to these observations. According to PiS Chairman Jarosław Kaczyński, the claim that Ukrainian grain was remaining in Poland was fake news planted by “the left” and the Kremlin. Likewise, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has attacked Tusk for supposedly “doing everything just like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s propaganda to destroy our peace of mind, to bring more unrest under the thatches of farmers.”

Yet as the party in charge, PiS obviously bears the blame. It is worth recalling that last summer, Henryk Kowalczyk, the deputy prime minister and minister of agriculture for the PiS government, advised farmers to keep their grain in storage and wait for the right moment to sell it. This is why the Polish countryside has erupted in recent months. With grain warehouses already full, Polish farmers will have nowhere to store the grain from this year’s harvest in a few months. Polish ports are at capacity, and the government has not followed through on a promise to build a new agroport in Gdansk.

With the market so glutted that the price of grain has fallen by sharply below production costs, Polish farmers have held massive protests in the countryside, the main source of PiS power. With his own electoral base growing more furious by the day, Kaczyński and his party have been flailing and making rash moves. So far, the government has maintained that it cannot impose tariffs or other restrictions on Ukrainian transit because such decisions fall exclusively to the EU. But this time, PiS could not simply blame the EU (its usual scapegoat), because one of its own party members, Janusz Wojciechowski, happens to be the EU commissioner for agriculture. Moreover, investigative reporting has revealed that companies linked to PiS politicians have been among those buying up the grain from Ukraine.

Though farmers are demanding the prime minister’s resignation, the government has instead offered them Kowalczyk’s scalp. But while he has resigned as minister of agriculture, he will remain deputy prime minister. Then, Kaczyński, who is nominally just a regular MP, announced that farmers will be able to sell grain at a higher price (albeit still lower than what Kowalczyk promised when he told farmers to wait), with the government subsidizing the difference.

But this is not much of a solution, because – again – there are no available warehouses in Poland to store grain bought back from the farmers before the harvest. And so, on April 15, the Polish government unilaterally banned the transit of grain from Ukraine until June 30, notifying neither the EU nor Ukraine of the decision.

In response, Ukraine expressed “regret” about the situation and reminded the Polish government that Ukrainian farmers are in an even more difficult situation than Polish farmers are. And the EU, for its part, reminded Poland of its own exclusive competence in matters of trade, warning that “unilateral action is unacceptable.”

The transit ban affects as many as 18 product categories (including wine, for reasons that remain unclear) imported from Ukraine. The aim, clearly, was to make a big show that would satisfy the countryside. But it didn’t calm tempers there. Farmers continued to protest and declared that they will never vote for PiS again.

Though PiS was cool toward Ukraine until Russia’s full-scale invasion 14 months ago, it has used the war to end the international isolation that its own undemocratic, populist policies caused. But the grain crisis confronted the government with a stark choice: It could either spoil Poland’s excellent relations with Ukraine or let the countryside down, lose the upcoming election, and face criminal liability for all its illegal behavior.

The government’s initial reaction, no surprise, was to stab Ukraine in the back. But following intergovernmental negotiations, Poland has agreed to unblock transit on April 21, while relying on GPS to monitor products and convoys more closely. Relations with Ukraine seem to have been salvaged – for now.

But with the crisis in the countryside far from over, Polish authorities will be scrounging up whatever funds they can find to appease farmers, disregarding budget constraints and today’s inflation rate of nearly 20%. Will this be enough salvage PiS’s electoral prospects? We will find out this fall.

By Sławomir Sierakowski

Sławomir Sierakowski, founder of the Krytyka Polityczna movement, is a Senior Fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations. 

First published in Project Syndicate

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