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Poland: EU Milk Problem A Lesson For The East

By Bill Echikson

Brussels, 18 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- After the European Union's grand declarations about expansion to the East come the real problems -- starting with a cup of milk

At its Luxembourg summit Saturday, the EU extended invitations to begin membership negotiations in four months with five former communist countries -- the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia. The Mediterranean island of Cyprus also was invited to the first wave of talks, while five other Eastern nations -- Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia -- were designated by the EU as part of the overall "accession process." Both West and East European leaders hailed the decision as what was called a "moment of historic significance."

But at the same time, on a more mundane level, the EU has moved to ban milk imports from Poland. The ban came last week after two visits by Brussels officials to Polish dairies. One high ranking European Commission official (unnamed) says bluntly: "The sanitary conditions on the first visit were terrible, and we issued a warning. And on the second visit, the sanitary conditions were even worse."

The Polish milk problem represents an illuminating test case of how the EU will deal with the Eastern candidate states as membership talks proceed. Brussels will tell the Easterners to adopt to its standards -- no matter what, and no excuses will be accepted. If the Easterners want to join the club, they will have to change, not vice versa. Nor should the Eastern states expect much help from the rich West. The Polish Agriculture Minister was in Brussels last week pleading for help to improve his country's dairy sanitary conditions. Commission officials told him that Poland must find the money in already announced EU aid programs.

Similar disputes are sure to flare up as entry negotiations intensify. In order to join, the Easterners will have to get rid of all import tariffs. But Poland, for one, continues to insist on keeping its duties for imported steel. Otherwise, the big Polish steel industry, still in state hands, could go bankrupt. Other potentially explosive questions range from sanitary conditions in Eastern slaughterhouses to the imposition of strict EU environmental rules.

The East clearly is going to pay dearly for joining the EU. Jernej Stritih of the Budapest-based Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe estimates the cost of implementing EU environment standards -- just for Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland -- at $125 billion. He says that putting too great a financial burden on the candidate nations could devastate their economies.

"At the same time," he adds, "if the East requests too much funding from the EU's common resources, that could reduce the willingness of (the 15 current EU) member countries to accept new members."

The obvious solution would be for the new members to receive exemptions from certain EU regulations. Such exemptions have been offered in the past. Border controls on potentially unsanitary Spanish and Portuguese farm products were extended after those two countries joined the Union, notes a high-ranking European Commission farm official.

"But at that time, there was no (internal EU) single market," he recalls. "This time it's hard to imagine that our 15 member states will agree to waive certain requirements or keep up border controls."

In order to get its way, the Westerners almost certainly will take advantage of Eastern divisions. Poland has four million farmers. Estonia, with only a total population of 1.5 million, has very few. And Estonian diplomats themselves admit they lack the resources to determine in which areas the country should fight for exemptions or what is known in Brussels jargon as "transition periods" from the thousands of EU regulations.

Toivo Klaar, an Estonian diplomat in Brussels says: "Many of our Eastern colleagues fear that we will just go into the negotiations and just accept everything," The problem is that the five Eastern candidates don't all share the same interests."

Of course, the five applicants do share the same desire to get into the Union as fast as possible. And they do recognize that they will have to spend large sums on improving sanitary conditions and their environment, whether they join or not. But it is also true that it's in the West's interest to spend more to help the East.

One environmental consultant in Brussels puts it this way: "Every extra dollar spent in the East on the environment ends up helping the environment a lot more than every extra dollar in the West. But the problem is political: Getting Austrians to pay for cleaning up Hungary and Germans for helping Poland isn't popular with (Austrian and German) voters who want the money spent at home.

Once again, the milk dispute illustrates the dangers ahead. Since throwing off communism, Poland had succeeded in selling almost $50 million worth of milk annually to the West. Now those exports are lost until much more money is spent cleaning up Polish dairies.

The Poles aren't taking the ban lightly. Although they deny any direct link, EU Executive Commission officials accuse Warsaw of retaliating by slowing down border entry from the German city of Frankfurt an der Oder.

"They're checking papers by using a 1929 law," says a furious official in Brussels. "It's clearly retaliation."

The same EU official says that, before the milk ban is lifted, the Polish authorities must draw up a list of dairies that meet the Union's sanitary standards. Once new checks are carried out, exports could start again from these specific production sites. But he warns that the EU will not lower its health standards, particularly since West European populations are frightened by recent health scandals such as the so-called Mad Cow Disease.

The East-West food fights could easily worsen. Another group of EU inspectors is just about to report back on the sanitary conditions of Polish slaughterhouses. The EU official says: "If their dairies are poor, their slaughterhouses probably are just as bad." He suggests that even world-renowned Polish ham soon could be banned from the EU.

"There's no question of (the EU) lowering its standards," the official insists. "The East Europeans are just going to have to bring their own standards up."