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EU: Agriculture Policy Poses Tough Issue For Eastern Candidates

A new and difficult phase of the accession negotiations will soon begin between the European Union and the leading Eastern candidates. It will determine the extent to which farmers in the new member countries will benefit from the EU's agriculture policy. Correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports.

Prague, 8 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union and the leading Eastern accession candidates are finally set to tackle one of the most difficult issues of the membership negotiations -- agriculture.

The EU's Executive Commission is now preparing a common negotiating position to present to the leading candidates: Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Estonia and Slovenia, as well as Cyprus. The document should be in the hands of the candidates by next month, and negotiations will start in June.

Agriculture is a particularly explosive issue, because under the Common Agricultural Policy, known as CAP, the EU already spends nearly $40 billion a year on payments to farmers in the present 15 member states. If the same financial support is given to farmers in the incoming states, that bill will rise massively.

In view of that, Brussels' stance has long been that the newcomers will not be entitled to direct payments under the CAP. In the last few weeks, however, a key change in attitude has become apparent. EU farm commissioner Franz Fischler has said there could be a gradual phasing-in of CAP benefits to the Eastern newcomers, for instance over a five-to-seven-year transition period.

Fischler's spokesman Gregor Kreuzhueber cautions, however, that this is not official EU policy. So far extending CAP benefits is just one of the options being considered by the commission.

Kreuzhueber said that even more important than the money itself, in the commission's view, is to ensure that anything paid to new member states would be used effectively, and would make sense in economic terms:

"We are very reluctant to grant large sums of money, especially direct payments -- for example to Polish farmers -- just because there is a certain danger that this money would contribute to preserving existing structures which actually need reform."

The Easterners, however, want full payment of CAP benefits from day one of membership, on the grounds that the single market competition rules require equal treatment.

Vladislav Piskorz is the agriculture counselor at Poland's mission to the EU. He says the newcomers will have done their part by applying the EU's complex body of rules, called the "acquis communitaire":

"We are taking on a big burden by adopting the acquis. This is not just for free, there is not only the cost of creating the administrative and institutional structure, but also the cost to our consumers. It means higher food prices, and what will be the result if we are not offered payments? Our consumers will have to pay anyway the higher prices because of CAP, but the farmers will not be getting the benefit of this, and this would be a strange situation."

Poland, with its huge and antiquated farm sector, presents a particular problem for Brussels. Apart from sheer numbers of farmers, there are key questions of standards. For instance, only about one-third of Polish milk production currently meets EU hygiene standards, and only a handful of dairies are licensed to export to the EU. Substandard meat production is also problematic.

The standards issue becomes even more tricky with regard to export outside the EU. Poland, when it is an EU member, would not be allowed to export products from substandard facilities to EU countries. But would it still be allowed to such products to Russia?

The Poles, ever resourceful, have not been slow to try and turn the tables on the lumbering EU. They have developed an argument with immense appeal to health-conscious West European food consumers. That is that Polish farming, being mostly low-tech and traditional in method, is actually much more environmentally friendly and less dependent on chemicals than Western farming. Diplomat Piskorz says:

"We have some advantages, in that production is achieved with less threat to the environment, with less use of fertilizers and pesticides, and that means there is less threat also for the consumers."

He notes that yields in Poland tend to be lower than in EU countries -- grain yields, for instance, might be only one-third the level of EU production per hectare -- but that fertilizer use is also only one-third. That means less run-off of chemicals like nitrogen into the water systems, and therefore greater long-term sustainability of the agricultural process.

And that can only benefit the health of future generations, he says.