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Poland: Farmers' Discontent Spans East And West

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Prague, 11 February 1990 (RFE/RL) -- From the Baltic to the Aegean, farmers in Europe are expressing discontent. That is really nothing new -- it will be an exceptional day when farmers stop complaining about the weather, their crops and their incomes.

But the latest round of protests shows clearly the deep concern held by men who work the land in countries as far apart as Poland and Greece. At the same time, they illustrate problems facing the European Union in its effort to promote agricultural reform among members and eastern applicant countries.

In Poland, farmers blocked roads for weeks to protest low prices and competition from cheap EU imports. In France, farmers ransacked the office of the country's environment minister to protest regulations and EU plans to cut subsidies. Other French farmers joined German counterparts in placing 1,000 tractors across roads near Strasbourg to protest EU policies. In Greece, farmers used 500 tractors to block roads to demand debt write-offs and more subsidies.

The problems facing pig farmers in Poland are urgent, in that the Russian financial collapse has robbed them of their key export market. Experts say pork prices in Poland have fallen to about half the actual cost of production.

Following spectacular nationwide protests and marathon talks, the Polish government and farmers' unions reached agreement (Feb. 8) to set up a committee to discuss the broad range of problems. The government has offered greatly increased subsidies for pork, helping ease that problem. But getting agreement on reforms meant to prepare Poland for EU membership will be more difficult.

Most farms in Poland are small, too small for modern, efficient farming, and many people fear they will be driven from the land. A large 25 percent of the population in Poland is still engaged in agriculture, compared with typically about four or five percent in Western Europe. The high figure scares those who fear the destabilizing effects of EU expansion.

Analyst Edmund Wnuk-Lipinski, of the Polish Institute of Political Studies in Warsaw, told RFE/RL that the Polish government is planning to use economic instruments to encourage EU-oriented reforms, such as providing subsidies only to farmers considered efficient enough to meet EU standards, while offering job-retraining to others.

A senior Brussels-based official in the EU's Executive Commission, who requested anonymity, told RFE/RL that the union is not demanding "do this or else" from Polish farmers, but is offering assistance for change. Money is already available under the PHARE program and the financing will be doubled from next year. Further, he said, Poland will have a long transition period in which to reach EU norms.

As the recent actions of the Greek and French farmers show, agriculture is also a controversial sector within the EU itself.

Negotiations are now going on under the German presidency to reform the EU's common agricultural policy (CAP), the hugely expensive policy which consumes nearly half the entire EU annual budget. There's wide agreement that reform is necessary to avoid collapse of the system when new eastern members are admitted.

Germany and the Netherlands are leading a move to stabilize CAP payments at the present levels through to 2006 -- a move which would mean an effective cut in the amounts spent on farming. Within that ceiling, the way money is spent would change, in that guaranteed prices for the three staples - grain, milk and beef - would be sharply reduced, and the farmers directly compensated instead. This would have the effect of bringing EU farm prices closer to world market levels, and opening the opportunity for increased exports.

But the negotiations, which are scheduled to be finished next month, are proving very tough. Farmers are set to reject almost any concession by their respective governments, and they are demanding more help instead of less. Although only a tiny fraction of the population of the EU, farmers consume a vastly disproportionate amount of the Union's resources. With millions of Central and Eastern European farmers likely to join them inside the EU in the next decade, it seems certain that they will have leaner times ahead, no matter how hard they protest.