Why are protestors in Poland and Slovakia blocking border crossings to Ukraine? An explanation

Polish transporter with a delivery for Ukraine Photo by the author

The issue of a blockade of the border crossings into Ukraine carried out by Polish haulage companies made mainstream news. The disagreement between Poland and Ukraine has been going on for nearly a year now, but Ukraine is winning the PR war, so the reports in both mainstream and social media are very unfavourable for Poland. This is very hard to counteract, as it’s much easier to tweet “Poland betrayed Ukraine and is working with Russia now against it” than explaining the true reasons for this protest, as those reasons are really complicated.

But as the aggression in social media against Poland is spinning out of control and if anything here is benefiting Putin it’s a growing disagreement between Poland and Ukraine, I resolved to try and describe why Polish hauliers decided to carry on such dramatic protest, as I believe lack of understanding is harming both sides.

As I said, the matter is complicated, so I will have to make some simplification, but I will try my best to explain the gist of the issue. As a shorthand I will be talking about Polish hauliers, but remember this applies equally to transport companies operating in other EU countries, such as Slovakia, Hungary or Romania.

Let’s start with the basics:

1. How road transport in the EU works

Transport companies from any country can transport stuff inside their own country, or between any two countries in the EU. With some exceptions, they can’t do cabotage – that is transport goods within an EU country other than their country of origin.

2. How road transport between EU and non-EU countries works

Transport companies from non-EU countries can only transport goods between EU and their country – so they can import and export goods from EU. They are not allowed (again, with some exceptions) to carry internal transport within EU. To do so they usually have to get special permits. This works both ways, so transport companies from EU that want to go to third countries need permits, too.

Those permits are always an issue, as the numbers of them can vary and both sides always believe the other side got too many permits and they got not enough. This is often used as a political blackmail: Russia, for example, was often using it to put pressure on Poland when transport to Russia (and via Russia) was still a thing. More recently there was a conflict about numbers of permits between Poland and Ukraine. In late 2021, Ukraine threatened to sue Poland over too low a number (in their perception) of permits issued, but eventually turned to blackmail. Yes, in early 2022 it was Ukraine that was blocking freight traffic between Poland and Ukraine – the Ukrainian side closed the railway border crossing, cutting an important logistic lifeline between China and Poland.

3. EU – Ukraine treaty after full scale invasion.

When Russia conducted a full scale invasion on Ukraine, European Union obviously sided strongly with Ukraine. An agreement had been made:

to temporarily facilitate road freight transport between and through the territory of the European Union and Ukraine by granting additional rights of transit and carriage of goods (…) following the repercussions of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine and the significant disruptions it brings for all transport modes in the country”.

You can find this agreement here.

The gist of this deal is: Ukraine is at war, its ports are blocked, traffic to North and West is out of question, so it has to rely on imports and/or transit from/through the European Union. To facilitate that, EU agrees to suspend requirement of the permits for Ukrainian trucks transporting goods between EU and Ukraine, as long as Ukraine does the same for the trucks operated by companies from EU member states.

Initially it was only Ukrainian hauliers who were benefiting from this agreement. Russians were regularly bombing the whole country (some Russian rockets even made it to Poland, as well as some Ukrainian ones (this one unfortunately killed two people). Driving trucks into Ukraine was out of question for Polish companies due to driver’s fear for safety or obvious insurance issues.

But as the Ukrainian counter-offensive progressed, Western Ukraine became relatively safe. And so Polish companies resumed their transport operations to Ukraine as well, entering the market already dominated by Ukrainian competitors.

4. Queues on the border

Due to unprecedented scale of the road transport in this direction, the border crossings were unable to cope with the amount of traffic – Not that there weren’t already problems with queues before the war. We have to remember that this is still an EU external border and Polish officials have to perform a variety of checks ensuring compliance with EU regulations. For those reasons the queues were obviously worse on the Ukrainian side, which led many irregularities, but waiting times on both sides increased from hours to days.

Both sides were blaming each other but the truth is the infrastructure is just unable to cope with the traffic. However, Ukrainian side decided to pressure Poland by breaking the rules of the agreement – for example: forcing empty trucks to queue with the others, despite that such trucks should be allowed to skip the queue, as there is no cargo checks to be performed on them. Meanwhile Polish truckers who tried to skip the queue when empty – as it should be permitted by the law – were attacked by Ukrainian drivers. There were also attempts to extort bribes from them. In addition, we have to remember that Polish drivers can be in Ukraine only for 90 days in each 180 day period (similar situation to Britons in EU after Brexit) so if they waste days in the queue, they might be not able to perform as many journeys to Ukraine (and some were already fined for overstaying in Ukraine, despite being held at the border for more than two weeks).

To tackle the issue, Ukrainian side introduced an electronic queuing system, but that only made things worse for the Polish truckers, as the system allowed further discrimination against them.

5. Discrimination against Polish hauliers

Polish truckers argue, that they are at a disadvantage. Reading industry forums and social media, I saw several reports about Ukrainians trying to fine Polish companies for the absence of no-longer-necessary permits, or for lack of some new imaginary ones – although it’s hard to tell if this is deliberate action of the government, or just ordinary attempts to extort bribes. I spoke with a driver who told me that he was stopped for some roadside check and held there for more than an hour while Ukrainian trucks – even with obvious defects like complete lack of lights on the back of the trailer – were allowed to leave after just brief conversation with the police.

But the major issue raised by the Polish haulage companies is the electronic queue system. The system is flawed; according to the Ukrainian government it’s still in experimental stage and even Ukrainian hauliers are complaining about that. However, the system is also set against the Polish hauliers. According to Polish protesters:
– Ukrainian competition can book place in the queue in advance, while Polish companies can only do it after they are ready to depart, which means Ukrainian competition can have much quicker turnover.
– Ukrainian competition can swap truck registration numbers, Poles have no access to this function.
– The system constantly drops Polish trucks down the queue, moving Ukrainian trucks ahead of them.

6. Situation of the Polish haulage companies.

Many Polish companies (remember, I am using this as a shorthand, the same applies to companies from other EU countries) specialise in transporting to the East. Before the war, companies like Omega-Pilzno experimented with regular transport to China; others – such like Sław-Trans – regularly operated to Mongolia, Tajikistan or deep Russia. With the sanctions being introduced against Russia and Belarus transport transport to – or through – those countries became nearly impossible. There are attempts to circumvent Russia by going the southern routes via Turkey or Black Sea ferries, but not only are such routes much longer, but also there is a bottleneck as ,with Iran and Russia being out of question, all trucks need to use Caspian Sea ferries. And anyway, most of the traffic was going to Russia, anyway. With all the respect to the real victims of the war, those companies are suffering because of Russian invasion of Ukraine, too.

Such companies often cannot just easily swap to driving West. EU haulage market is already over-saturated, the drivers might speak only Russian and the trucks might not be competitive on the European market (road tolls in Europe are much higher for the trucks that do not meet highest emission standards, while in Asia this is not an issue As a result, many still operate Euro 4 or Euro 5 trucks). Many of those companies had been brought to the brink of bankruptcy and so the extremely high demand for the transport to and from Ukraine could be a lifeline. But we have to remember that, even with the fair competition, it would be really a tough market for them: EU hauliers have much higher costs of operation and need to observe much stricter regulations than their Ukrainian competitors.

7. What were the original demands of the protesters?

Hauliers are protesting for over a year now. Initially, they were also concerned about Belarussian and Russian companies, so let’s focus on the demands related to Ukraine. The protesters wanted:

  1. Abandonment of the electronic queue system, that is so unfair and prone to abuse, and return to the classic “analogue” system of “first come, first served”.

2) Allowing empty trucks to return without having to queue in the same queue than loaded ones.

3) Reintroduction of the permit system for commercial transport, allowing Ukrainians to operate freely only when carrying out strategic and humanitarian transports.

4) Closing the loopholes allowing Ukrainian (but also Belarussian and Russian) companies to be opened in Poland as a front for their operation, making it possible to circumvent EU regulations and abuse the system.

8. Why the protests escalated to the blockade

Even though association of Ukrainian transport companies also supports some of the demands(like allowing empty trucks to skip the queues, or improving the glitchy electronic queuing system), Ukrainian government was not interested in making any concessions. Meanwhile neither the EU, nor the Polish government was trying to discuss the issue – when it comes to the former, it’s probably because EU wants to do everything to help Ukraine and does not mind if a few dozen of Eastern European transport companies are thrown under the bus in the process. As for the latter, the outgoing Polish government was not exactly known for being particularly skilful in international politics (to put it mildly) and in any case they were too busy desperately trying to avoid losing elections, so they weren’t willing to risk touching this difficult issue.

Apparently, only this desperate form protest finally forced Ukraine to reconsider, as from 4 December, another border crossing will be opened to allow for the return of empty trucks into Poland. This is a first step, but it’s in a good direction. Let’s hope the new Polish government will be able to negotiate some acceptable compromise.

Allow me to tackle some of the most recent arguments coming from the Ukrainian side:

a) “Poles were doing the same to Western Europe and now they are unhappy when Ukrainians are doing it to them”
Those issues are not the same. Poles and other Eastern Europeans were indeed able to dominate road transport in the EU, thanks to being cheaper than their competition. But this is not a good analogy. The issue here was about internal EU transport, like transporting goods between France and Germany, or Italy and Sweden. This is a separate issue. Ukrainians aren’t allowed to do it anyway (it’s a different question if they are doing it) and as for the price advantage of the Eastern European companies, EU has addressed the problem by introducing Mobility Package – which I won’t go into here, as it’s not relevant for this topic.

b) “Poles betrayed Ukraine, and are now working with Russia, as seen by the fact that pro-Russian politicians are backing the protest”.

In brief: not true. But, to be frank, this is complicated. Initially it was indeed a grassroots protest about real issues. Of course pro-Russian parties jumped on the bandwagon and now drum up the issue. But they would never have had a chance to do it if the issue was addressed in the first place by the Ukrainian side.

c) “The protest is immoral, as Ukrainians are at war”.

The protesters are desperate. Their livelihood is at stake. Their businesses are driven into bankruptcy. They let humanitarian and military transports through – this is being controlled by the Polish police. They let limited numbers of ordinary trucks per hour pass, too. There are cases when protesters failed to let the humanitarian transport pass, it is true, as they did not believed it was indeed destined for the front, but there were also cases when regular transports were declared as humanitarian aid. We could also wonder if Ukraine’s discrimination towards the Polish truckers is needed to win the war? Surely it would be better for Ukraine if there were more trucks capable of transporting much needed supplies?

The truth is that such unprecedented demand for road transport means that this is a goldmine for everyone in Ukraine who’s able to put a truck and a trailer on the road. Many people will make a fortune here. It seems as if Ukraine simply didn’t wanted Poles or Slovakians to be able to get a chunk of that cake, too.

d) “this protest is illegal”

We might like it or not, but protests are still legal in the EU. Blocking the roads is a well established means of protest not only in Poland, but in many other European countries – from French farmers blocking the autoroutes with their tractors to Just Stop Oil protesters gluing themselves to the ground.

e) “this protest costs lives!”

As I already mentioned, important transports are, as a rule, being let through. If it was true, that delaying of other transport costs lives of Ukrainian soldiers, surely Ukraine would be more keen to solve the issue? Lives of defenders of the nation surely must be more important than profit margins of a few dozens of hauliers?

True, some drivers died in their trucks when queuing on the border. But nobody was worried about drivers when it was Polish drivers stuck on the Ukrainian side. That’s because long-haul drivers are used to spending weeks in their cabs. They have beds, heating, often air conditioning units. They have fridges and cooking facilities. And, unfortunately, drivers dying in their cabins is nothing unheard of. It’s the nature of the job. Drivers work long hours alone; they can’t just take a day off because they feel under the weather when they are thousands of kilometres from their homes. There is nobody to check on them when they fall ill when asleep, and no work colleague to tell them “Oi, mate, you look pale, are you OK? Maybe you should see a doctor?” A quick query into a search engine returned three results of drivers dying at work since April (here, here and here) – and those were only those that Polish media wrote about.

There are reports of Ukrainian drivers who run out of fuel to heat their cabs. That might be true, but only if they drove to the borders on the fumes, hoping to fill the tank with cheaper diesel on the other side. Typical long distance truck will take more than a thousand litres and a night heater uses approximately 0.25 litre per hour. 50 litres of diesel will keep you warm for more than a week.

We have also to remember that they are not imprisoned there like in case of infamous Manston Airport situation in England a couple of years back.  There are roadside facilities. They are free to walk to the nearby villages and use roadside facilities. There are volunteers bringing them food and water.

f) “Poland was causing trouble with the grain and now this!”

When it comes to grain, the issue was completely separate. And yes, that time it was entirely the Polish side to blame. But these two issues have nothing to do with each other, even if pro-Russian politicians in Poland are trying to put them together.

Photo by the author

My perspective:

Personally, I wish the protest was not necessary. I feel why Polish trucking companies feel desperate, but there was no will to address the issue from the Polish, EU, or Ukrainian side until they came to desperate measures. I am sad it had to come to this. Nobody but Putin benefits from this conflict.

Do I believe the demands of the protesters should be met? Not all of them.

I am welcoming opening alternative crossing for empty trucks. I support their demand to scrap the Ukrainian electronic queuing system, or at least it should be improved so all trucks are treated equally. While I hope to see Ukraine as another EU member soon, it should be not allowed for Ukrainians (but also Russians, Belarussians or Britons, for that matter) to establish dummy companies in the EU for the sole purpose to use them as front to circumvent EU regulations.

But do I think permits should be re-introduced? No, at least for as long as Ukraine is fighting. But on one condition: discrimination against EU hauliers should end. As intended by the treaty, all trucks should be able to move freely between EU and Ukraine. I believe the ball is on Ukrainian side.

The whole issue damages relations between our countries. I tried to explain the issue on Twitter, but not many people are willing to listen. I received numerous hateful messages from Ukrainians and saw many anti-Polish comments from Westerners already. Some even said (jokingly, but still) that protesters should be shot. This is a wrong way. We don’t need to fight. We should be on the same side. We need each other. In longer perspective, Poland needs Ukraine to win the war. In shorter perspective, Ukraine needs Poland on it’s side to be able do so. I wish the government could sit, talk, and come to acceptable compromise.

But as the things stand now, Poles are losing PR battle, as Western media and Ukraine’s supporters don’t want to look into the root causes of that protests and are happy with repeating the Ukraine’s narration portraying Poland in bad light – in my opinion – unfairly.

Meanwhile, anger grows on the Polish side as well. We feel that we gave all we could to Ukraine militarily, still help in many other ways, million of Ukrainians are living in Poland, but Ukrainian government behaves as if they realized they gained everything they could from us, so it’s time to gain more “at our expense”, so to speak. I would even understand why would they do it, if that was true – they are willing to do everything to save their country from Russia, and if sacrificing good relations with Poland was needed to do it, they would probably not hesitate to do so. But if it is true, I personally believe it’s a mistake. Poland and Ukraine should stay friends, as we need each other in the long term. 

The car I delivered at personal cost to the Ukraine border at Medyka

Last, but not least, some people say those Polish truckers should just sacrifice themselves for the greater good as Ukraine’s victory is in their interest too. I don’t believe we have the right to expect that from anyone. I am a staunch supporter of Ukraine and I am trying to help it as much as I can – sometimes even more, like when I agreed to drive a car for Ukrainian army to the border only to find that despite what we agreed, I have to pay for petrol and all other associated costs from my own pocket, which plunged me deep into debt as I was unemployed at this time. You. too. might be a strong supporter of Ukraine, but ask yourself honestly: if someone told you you need to go bankrupt, give up all your savings, your house, your job or your kid’s college fund, would you just do it? Or would you protest as well?