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Analysis: Poland Rides Into EU On Ebbing Enthusiasm

Polish protest: Coming to an EU member near you? By Jan Maksymiuk

(Click here to see RFE/RL's "EU Expands Eastward" webpage.)

Poland joins the European Union on 1 May along with nine other newcomers. For many Poles, this will obviously be a joyous historic occasion. The day might well be viewed as a symbolic boundary that puts a definitive end to the post-World War II division of Europe into two antagonistic camps by the Iron Curtain. The formal admission of Poland to the EU crowns that country's effort to overcome the consequences of the 1945 Yalta Agreement, which cut Poles off from Europe and left them in the Soviet-dominated zone for nearly half a century.

"Such days are very rare in human life," "Gazeta Wyborcza" Editor in Chief Adam Michnik wrote on 30 April on the occasion of the EU expansion.

For a majority of Poles, however, the festive mood instilled by media, government officials, and communist-era dissidents on this occasion will be mingled with serious apprehension and anxiety. In a June 2003 referendum, more than 77 percent of Polish voters said "yes" to EU membership. But recent opinion polls suggest Polish enthusiasm for the EU has fallen well below 50 percent. Polish farmers are among the most strident EU-skeptics in the country -- no more than 30 percent of them view EU accession in a positive light. The most popular party in the country is the outspokenly anti-EU Self-Defense party led by Andrzej Lepper, which enjoys the support of one-third of Polish voters.

Warsaw's staunch pro-Washington stance is widely seen as a major hurdle on the EU's path toward a coherent and united foreign policy.
What are the most pressing anxieties in Poland in relation to country's EU entry? Generally, most Poles are afraid that EU membership might not bring the economic advantages advertised by the government during accession talks. In particular, there is apprehension that Poland might become a net contributor to the EU budget from the outset, even though its economic output per capita is less than 40 percent of the EU average.

The Polish farming sector is the most graphic example of such anxiety. More than 2 million farms in Poland are small and poorly equipped to compete with West European farmers on an expanded market of 450 million consumers. Initially, Polish farmers will be additionally handicapped by the EU's system of direct farm subsidies: They will receive just 25, 30, and 35 percent of full EU subsidies in 2004, 2005, 2006, respectively. No one can predict how enlargement will affect and alter the Polish agricultural sector.

Poland's unemployment rate has been fluctuating between 18 and 20 percent in the past year, which translates into nearly 3.5 million job seekers. Fearing a flood of cheap labor, all EU members apart from Ireland and Great Britain will introduce temporary restrictions on access to their labor markets for Poles and other postcommunist EU nationals. Poland will hardly be improving its employment situation by virtue of joining an expanded job market. Some in Poland argue that the unemployment rate might even increase in the short term due to the closures of businesses that cannot compete with rivals from Western Europe.

Another grave concern is that moneyed foreigners will "buy up" Poland -- that is, purchase the most attractive real estate and land in Poland before Poles are sufficiently wealthy to afford such purchases. To dampen such fears, the Polish government negotiated a reasonably long transition period on property land sales; foreigners are banned from buying farmland and forests for 12 years after Poland joins the EU. That period is reduced to seven years for EU farmers who currently lease land in the west and north of the country (regions that belonged to Germany before World War II), and to three years for similar cases throughout the rest of the country.

However, Polish populist and nationalist parties warn their compatriots that Poland might be faced with a flood of property-restitution claims from the heirs or successors of ethnic Germans forced to leave the territories ceded to Poland after World War II. No one has convincingly assured Poles that such an eventuality is not on the horizon.

Apart from the aforementioned concerns, which are shared by large segments of ordinary Poles, there are also tricky issues connected with EU entry for the Polish ruling elite. Poland and Spain blocked the adoption of an EU constitution late last year, objecting to the double-majority voting system stipulated in the document. Spain's new Socialist government subsequently withdrew those objections. Poland has signaled its desire for consensus on the voting-rights issue, but no face-saving compromise has emerged.

Moreover, Warsaw's staunch pro-Washington stance is widely seen as a major hurdle on the EU's path toward a coherent and united foreign policy.

In other words, the momentous and much-coveted "reunion of Poland with Europe" for many Poles signals the beginning of a new epoch of obstacles and, in all probability, social unrest. The fiery Lepper has warned that Poland will "renegotiate" most agreements with the EU if he comes to power. "If Poland is not treated [by the EU] on an equal footing, then Poland's EU accession might be the beginning of the end of the European Union in its present shape," Lepper told at a throng of cheering Poles last week.

Or at least, to borrow Winston Churchill's witticism, the end of the beginning.