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EU: 'Negotiations' On Agriculture Leave Little Room For Maneuver

Poland and other Eastern candidate countries have expressed deep dissatisfaction at proposals from the European Commission that would grant new European Union members only gradual access to the union's huge farm support budget. Negotiations on that topic will start later this year. But are these real negotiations, or will Poland and the other candidates simply have to accept the EU's position? Experience indicates that Brussels does not like making concessions.

Prague, 5 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Headlines in the press sometimes refer to the hard and bitter negotiations that are expected between the European Commission and the European Union's Eastern candidate countries on the subject of agricultural benefits.

Certainly the candidates, led by Poland and Hungary, are angry at the commission's draft proposals issued last week. These foresee EU newcomers initially receiving only 25 percent of the level of farm benefits given to present members. Payments would rise gradually until, 10 years later, parity would be achieved.

Hungary reacted swiftly, calling Polish, Czech, and Slovak leaders to a conference in Budapest on 19 February to organize a united front to oppose the offer.

But experience with the enlargement process indicates that the candidates are unlikely to achieve major changes in the EU proposals. Brussels will almost certainly hold fast to its line, perhaps shortening the transition period by a year or two. Seen from that point of view, the enlargement "negotiations " are not so much real negotiations but more a process of acceptance by the candidates.

RFE/RL's correspondent in Brussels, Ahto Lobjakas, explains: "The commission establishes [beforehand] what might be called the limits of tolerance for [present] member states, and obviously [also] looks at what candidates can accept and cannot accept. And at the end of the day, they put it on paper. This method of working became first obvious when the commission was looking at the issue of the free movement of people. So essentially what the commission has come up with now is to a very large degree not negotiable, just because of these limits of tolerance."

That does not mean there won't be fireworks on the way to agreement, however. As John Palmer, the director of the European Policy Center in Brussels, says, there have been storms in earlier rounds of enlargement, as well.

"The negotiations in 1972 and '73 with the British, the Danes, the Norwegians, and the Irish had frequent crises, and negotiations with the Iberian countries, Portugal and Spain, in the '80s were also fairly rumbustious (uncontrollably exuberant) from time to time. It would be amazing if there were not various alarms en route between now and the end of the year, when there will be pressure to complete these negotiations."

But in this eastward enlargement, analysts see the agriculture issue as not really being solved by the upcoming negotiations, no matter how much arguing there might be. That's because the present budgetary arrangements last only until 2006, when the whole question of the common agricultural policy (CAP) -- and its much-needed reform -- is thrown open.

Lobjakas says the candidates are becoming aware of this anomaly.

"It is fairly obvious in the reactions of some of the candidates, especially the larger ones, that after their initial knee-jerk reactions and rejections, that they have started to say that the real issue is what is going to happen in the next budgetary period. And this, indeed, seems to be a major issue."

Germany, which foots the biggest bills, wants reforms that would slim down the amount of money going to Brussels to support the CAP. It also wants a "re-nationalizing" of financial support for farms, meaning that individual member governments would have to take over more of the burden. In any event, the net result would be to cut payments to farmers. But presumably the level of payments would be proportionally equal for all farmers, removing any inequality toward new members.

Palmer of the European Policy Center explains, "Certainly, long before the end of the [10-year] transition period, the common agricultural policy as we know it won't exist, so the old kind of production support system will not be available to [established] EU farmers any more than it will be available to farmers in the new accession countries in that time scale."

This being the case, could it be that the commission's present proposals to the candidates are merely designed to get the newcomers into the union, as scheduled, by 2004, and may never come into full effect? RFE/RL's Lobjakas says: "That's what the commission has tentatively and tacitly been indicating for the past three or four months, saying that the real battles will ensue, will follow, in the coming years. But it could be, on the other hand, a tactic to goad the candidates into accepting this deal, with the hope that they could perhaps renegotiate bits of it -- ask for more money or rearrange whatever proportion the member states might set -- later on."

In any event, the commission's proposals are causing strains in Poland's left-wing coalition government. The junior partner, the Peasants' Party led by Jaroslaw Kalinowski, is questioning whether it makes sense to join the EU as "second-class members."

By contrast, Prime Minister Leszek Miller of the Democratic Left Alliance has taken a milder line. As analyst Grzegorz Kostrzewa-Zorbas of the Institute of Political Studies in Warsaw puts it, "There were excessive expectations that Poland would become fully integrated overnight, after it joins the EU formally."