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Poland: Giant Among EU Candidates Gets Mixed Signals

Poland is the giant among the Eastern candidates for membership of the European Union. Its vast agricultural sector will be particularly difficult for the EU to integrate into the Common Agricultural Policy. As the EU prepares to tackle negotiations with candidates on that subject, Brussels seems to be sending mixed signals regarding Poland. Correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports.

Prague, 4 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- By virtue of its spectacular progress in economic reform, and its enthusiastic desire to join Western structures, Poland has always been regarded as a leading candidate for quick entry into the European Union.

Already a member of the NATO alliance, Poland has set its own target date of January 2003 for accession to the EU. It is one of five Central and East European "front-runners" that have been negotiating with Brussels already for the past two years. (The others are Hungary, the Czech Republic, Estonia, and Slovenia.)

For its part, the EU's Executive Commission has always declined to set a date for entry by any of the candidates, although it maintained a generally encouraging tone. But there have been confusing signals appearing lately about the position of Poland.

Guenter Verheugen, the EU's commissioner for enlargement, said in a press interview in Brussels (with "Uniting Europe," March 27) that Poland is not "pre-determined" to be in the first wave of accession. Theoretically seen, he said, "Poland could even be the last of all to join."

In diplomatic circles where words are weighed, such a formulation is striking. It follows Verheugen's comments the month before in Warsaw when he said Poland could miss the 2003 deadline, as it had fallen behind in developing its legislative program. Also in Warsaw, Ricardo Levi, the spokesman for Commission President Romano Prodi, mused aloud about the possibility of a first-wave entry -- without Poland.

Verheugen has since made an effort to backtrack, in an evident attempt to smooth ruffled feathers. In another press interview ("Financial Times," April 4), he said it's his personal objective to ensure that Poland is among the first new members. He said there is no change in the commission's strategy and no one need be nervous. The enlargement process is "irreversible," he says.

So why the sudden swings in tone? Poland's Ambassador to the EU Jan Truszczynski says there is "no reason to believe that Poland has ceased to be one of the leaders in the league of candidates." He admits there are delays of "several months," as he puts it, in legislation in some important areas, including telecommunications. But work is now being speeded up, Truszczynski says, and even so:

"If one looks at the assessments made by the European Commission over the past few years, '97, '98, '99, even with taking into account the critical observations [they contain] and the fact that Poland has run into a certain delay on parts of it pre-accession efforts, the overall picture still is good and still is promising."

The ambassador, like other Polish officials, says it is "unthinkable" that Poland should be left out of the first wave. So what has caused EU officials to think the unthinkable? The most likely answer is agriculture. EU member states have not yet been able to decide how -- or even whether -- the terms of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy, or CAP, can be extended to Eastern candidates.

The CAP is a fabulously expensive instrument of financial support for EU farmers. It consumes half the entire EU budget and is deeply unpopular in international trade circles, where it's seen as posing unfair trade competition.

Extending the system to Poland's 2 million farms, most of them smallholdings worked at subsistence level, would probably bring the CAP to the point of collapse. And anyway, present member states would revolt at having to pay so much for Poland.

Verheugen foreshadowed the difficulties when he said last month that member states will not be able to formulate a full, common negotiating position on agriculture until at least the end of this year, despite the fact that negotiations with Poland and the other front-runners are set to open this June.

Verheugen has moved to put the ball in Warsaw's court, by saying the Polish government will have to come up with a clear concept on restructuring its agriculture. But as Ambassador Truszczynski says, the EU too must do its part. He says Brussels is reluctant to get down to the hard talking:

"They have to start proposing the solutions they have been signaling for quite some time already. We have to start discussing substance, this substance has not yet been the subject of discussion, the member states preferring until now to ask additional questions, to demand additional explanations from all the candidates." One possible solution in Poland's case could be to consider most of the farms not to be farms at all in terms of the CAP. Fewer than half a million farms in Poland are considered commercially viable. These could be subsidized under the CAP, while the other one and a half million properties, which are often not much more than family plots, could be helped under other EU funds, for instance for social development in rural areas.

What now appears clear, for Poland and for the other candidates, is that the agriculture issue is one with a potential to upset previous perceptions about who is leading in the EU accession stakes.