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How Polish farmers ignited a European revolution Donald Tusk is desperate to prove he's not an EU proxy

A Peasants' Revolt. Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty Images

A Peasants' Revolt. Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty Images


February 12, 2024   4 mins

Donald Tusk probably thought the worst was behind him. Just last month, Polish truckers suspended the months-long blockade of the Polish-Ukrainian border they had staged with the help of Polish farmers since November. The chaos, it seemed, was over — and then it wasn’t. Today, Poland finds itself not only on the eve of yet another border blockade, but also at the epicentre of a continent-wide Peasants’ Revolt, with tens of thousands of European rustics following suit.

With Poland’s farmers once again demonstrating against EU rules favouring Ukrainian food imports, Tusk has responded in a manner hardly suited to a princeling of the EU. In the short-term, to keep the peace with Europe and Ukraine, he has promised to find solutions to farmers’ grievances within existing EU regulations. But more broadly, and quite unexpectedly, he has chosen to keep in place import bans on Ukrainian grain implemented by his Right-wing, Eurosceptic predecessors. He has also said he will oppose an extension of the EU’s free trade deal with Ukraine that has driven many farmers and truckers to despair, and his government recently announced tighter controls on imported goods at the Ukrainian border.

It seems, then, that Poland’s new protectionism is here to stay, as is the influence of its rural populist movement. While solidarity with Ukraine remains strong in the country, the impact of the war on Poland’s fragile agricultural sector has grown too large to ignore — footage has already emerged allegedly showing Polish farmers angrily dumping grain from Ukrainian trucks at one border crossing. Tusk’s government has taken note, and is striking a careful balance between its vital security relationship with Ukraine and the interests of its constituents.

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Despite making pledges during the election campaign last year to differentiate himself politically from his predecessors, Tusk has to show that on some matters, he too can play the nationalist — and can also take the fight to Brussels on issues that matter for everyday Poles. Crucially, one often overlooked reality for Tusk is that he sits at the head of a diverse coalition in Poland’s Parliament that includes not only centrists and leftists, but also somewhat more conservative parties and agrarian movements that are critical for his ability to govern. Whether he’s accommodating these protectionist concerns out of genuine concern for farmers, out of a desire to save face politically, or in the interest of placating his own coalition remains unclear, but his position in the wake of these protests is a clear break from the norm for someone who was once widely seen as the face of the EU establishment itself. This is, in other words, the moment to prove his worth.

“This is the moment for Tusk to prove his worth.”

And it’s been a long time coming. Today’s protests have their roots in last year’s Polish grain crisis. In spring, the EU struck a deal with Poland allowing for Ukrainian grain to be transported through the country but not introduced into the marketplace. When that deal expired in September, Poland’s previous government introduced an import ban on cheap Ukrainian wheat and maize in order to protect Polish farmers from collapses in grain prices. But farmers felt this didn’t go far enough. In November, they joined forces with disgruntled Polish truckers and blockaded the Ukraine border, complaining of the market threat posed by other imported Ukrainian food products and agitating for agricultural subsidies and favourable taxes.

Meanwhile, during last year’s bitter election campaign, Poland’s populist government drummed up nationalist concerns about the Ukraine war’s impact on the Polish market. Nor did it help that the Ukrainian side escalated the situation further, suing Poland and several of its neighbours in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) for their import bans.

Since taking power in December, Tusk has sought to rebuild the relationship between Poland and Ukraine. On his first visit to Ukraine as Prime Minister in January, he claimed that he and Zelenskyy had “reached a common understanding” on both the border blockade and the farmers’ protests. He was, however, careful not to mince his words: “Poles want to help Ukraine,” he said on a previous occasion last month. “But they should not be put at a disadvantage. And least of all by the Ukrainians themselves.” Further negotiations on Ukrainian food imports will reportedly be held in Warsaw in March.

It is in Tusk’s interests for these to go well. While Tusk doesn’t have the same electoral reasons to play nice with rural voters as his political competitors last year, he cannot afford to further alienate the country’s agricultural class if he wants to protect his coalition’s fragile parliamentary majority — and especially if he wants to move forward with his ambitious and highly disruptive agenda to reform Poland’s state institutions. And although much of his and his political allies’ electoral support in last October’s elections came from major cities and their suburbs, many villages and towns across Poland’s rural west and north also carried his coalition to victory, meaning that his government very much has skin in the game when it comes to agricultural politics.

But Polish farmers have more varied concerns than just trade from Ukraine: recently revived protests have also voiced opposition to the European Green Deal, among other EU policies. For Polish leaders, though, this may be rather convenient. “We understand these protests, which are not targeted at the Polish government, but at the restrictions imposed by Brussels on farmers,” said Deputy Agriculture Minister Stefan Krajewski. Another deputy in the ministry, Michał Kołodziejczak, said that the EU’s policies had reached a “dead end”.

Though Tusk is a long way from personally winning the trust of Polish farmers, his coalition contains politicians who have long been sympathetic to their cause: Kołodziejczak, for instance, founded the agrarian party Agrounia, which combined agrarian protectionism with social democracy, while Krajewski is a member of PSL, a centrist agrarian party. Today, Agrounia acts under the umbrella of Tusk’s Civic Coalition political alliance, while PSL is part of the centrist Third Way alliance that is crucial to Tusk’s governing coalition.

Neither group has been shy in their support for Polish farmers. PSL, whose members have taken up key positions in Tusk’s cabinet, explicitly voiced support for a list of demands put forward by agricultural organisations last year — and that was also supported by Poland’s former governing party. These groups will be critical to building a bridge between Poland’s rural populists and the new government.

While Tusk’s first priority is still to work with the EU on restoring rule of law in Poland (however haphazardly), the last eight years have shown players in the now-ruling coalition that Poles have a clear, uncompromising vision of their political future within the block — and will look out for themselves first and foremost. Tusk has to underscore that he is indeed the leader of Poland and not just an EU proxy in Warsaw, and if his coalition’s moves are any indication, he has chosen agriculture and trade as the area in which to prove exactly that.


Michal Kranz is a freelance journalist reporting on politics and society in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and the United States.

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Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 months ago

Goodness. Life in Brussels and reality have turned out to be two entirely separate things. Who’d have thought?

Ben Scott
Ben Scott
2 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Quite. Urban technocrats who have never got their hands dirty thinking up their utopian policies to impose on the grafters who have worked the land all their lives. Little wonder things went squiffy as soon as the rubber hits the road.

Nik Jewell
Nik Jewell
2 months ago

It won’t be “Ukrainian” grain for much longer. 30% of grain production has already been sold to multinationals. The price of rebuilding the country will be that almost all will eventually be sold off.

Mangle Tangle
Mangle Tangle
2 months ago
Reply to  Nik Jewell

I thought you meant that it would soon become Russian grain…

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
2 months ago

The EU and its envoys like Tusk are not rethinking anything. They were pushing for completely disastrous goals. Now journalists queue up to report that they’re listening and retreating. Yet the revised proposals being trailed are simply slightly less disastrous goals. Is the media really this supine or credulous? Honestly, do writers not understand the Overton window or even the very basic concept of haggling? Here we are all now jolly relieved that they’re only going to reduce meat farming by 20% in a decade.

james elliott
james elliott
2 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

They are simply ducking a while before the elections.

Nothing has changed, and it will be business as usual the day after.

Unless they are tried, and punished, for treason…

El Uro
EU
El Uro
2 months ago

Poland’s rural populists”
Shame on you, Michal Kranz!

Pip G
PG
Pip G
2 months ago

I thought the Common Agricultural Policy protected EU agriculture. Perhaps it has been changed. You can understand Tusk wanting to help his own citizens.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
2 months ago
Reply to  Pip G

Not when he spent several years trying to make life as hard as possible for the UK when we wanted to help our own citizens, i.e. Brexit. But then, we always knew the European Council were a bunch of self-serving hypocrites.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
2 months ago

He has also said he will oppose an extension of the EU’s free trade deal with Ukraine that has driven many farmers and truckers to despair, 
What interesting times we live in when a politician who puts national interests first is somehow guilty of protectionism or the new boogeyman of populism. If a deal is harming your own people, then it’s not a terribly good deal, is it? It doesn’t – or shouldn’t – matter what Tusk’s motivation is. What matters is whether what he’s doing is good or bad for Poles and Poland.
Everything in life is not about optics or theater, not even in politics which are often driven by both. Govt is not about having the right or wrong people in power, it’s about having them do the right things. They respond to incentives just like people in every other industry do. When it’s politically advantageous to do the right things, whether it’s the right or wrong people doing them is immaterial.

Stephen Barnard
Stephen Barnard
2 months ago

This is just a precursor to a broader EU problem when Ukraine joins. Perhaps someone remembers or has access to the exact numbers, but I believe they are something like 17 hectares being the average size of a farm in the EU, compared with the Ukrainian average of 1,000 hectares…

james elliott
james elliott
2 months ago

Is ‘populist’ simply a synonym for ‘democrat’?

Richard Rolfe
Richard Rolfe
2 months ago
Reply to  james elliott

Yes, everywhere and always.

Michel Starenky
Michel Starenky
2 months ago

Time for the dismemberment of the EU and NATO.

Alina Ch.
Alina Ch.
2 months ago

Putin would love it!