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Poland: Farmers Doubt EU Membership Will Reap Rich Rewards

In European Union candidate Poland, not everyone is convinced that EU membership will bring solid benefits. The country is having difficulty meeting some of the qualifications for entry required by Brussels. And as RFE/RL reports, the country's farmers are particularly skeptical that the change is one for the better. Bytow, Poland; 15 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Last weekend in the Polish capital Warsaw, thousands of people took part in a parade meant to show support for their country's entry into the European Union, scheduled for 2004.

The so-called "Schuman Parade" -- named after one of the EU's founders, statesman Robert Schuman -- attracts little interest in most EU countries. In Warsaw, the event's organizers say this year's ninth annual parade attracted more Poles than ever before. But the day also saw demonstrations by Polish citizens opposed to EU entry, indicating that not everyone in Poland is enthusiastic about the prospect of EU membership.

Poland, like other EU hopefuls, must complete by the end of this year a wide range of reforms dealing with everything from business, agriculture, trade, property laws, and health and safety regulations to match EU standards and thus qualify for membership.

Poland, with nearly 40 million people, is the largest of the EU candidate countries -- and also has some of the biggest problems in complying with the EU demands.

Poland's communist-era coal and steel industries, for instance, will find it difficult to compete in a single European market that does not allow trade barriers or state subsidies.

But the largest group of Poles to be affected by the change will be the 20 to 30 percent of the working population making up the agriculture sector. Farmers are the most vocal and politically powerful group among those currently opposing EU membership.

Most Polish farmers are small landholders working with outdated equipment and often reliant on horse-drawn vehicles. During the communist era, they comprised an economic elite in Poland, where they were allowed to sell some of their produce privately. With huge demand for products such as fresh meat and eggs, and no competition from imports, their private sales allowed them a much better standard of living than those of ordinary workers.

But that all changed with the fall of communism and Poland's desire to join the EU, which has involved opening up Polish markets to Western imports. Polish farmers complain they cannot compete with the cheaper output of Western Europe's huge modernized farms. They are particularly angry that they will not initially receive the same massive EU subsidies that for decades have allowed their Western counterparts to update equipment and farming methods, and that have given them protected prices for their products.

One such farmer is Stefan Drozd, who owns a 10-hectare farm in the village of Grzmiaca outside the northern town of Bytow. He runs the farm with the help of his elderly mother and one tractor, harvesting grain and vegetables and selling milk from the farm's three cows.

Drozd said Poland has been flooded with inexpensive Western-manufactured food products that have slashed demand for locally manufactured meat, vegetables, fruit, and dairy products.

"Western products were brought into the market and people found them attractive. They were better-packaged, better-subsidized, and people simply bought Western products. There is no tradition here in Poland of supporting local products," Drozd said.

Many politicians in Western Europe have long opposed the huge subsidies given to EU farmers and have wanted to see them eliminated -- something that is now gradually taking place. But Drozd said Polish farmers feel it is unfair they will not receive the same sort of financial support when Poland enters the EU. New EU members are initially promised just a quarter of the subsidies long-standing member states received, though the amount will gradually increase to full-subsidy levels.

"Polish farmers, in the agreements to the accession to the European Union, are promised subsidies, but not at adequate levels," Drozd said.

Somehow, hundreds of thousands of Polish farmers have managed to survive on the small incomes they have been able to make. Poles traditionally have a fierce attachment to their land and have tried to remain working even in the face of economic hardship.

In addition to complaints about the low subsidies, Polish farmers also worry about EU membership opening the country to EU nationals looking to buy up Polish land. That fear of a Western incursion extends to many ordinary Poles as well, who worry that businessmen from farther West -- principally Germans -- will buy up huge tracts of their country.

The public outcry over the issue forced Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller to plead for a renegotiation of land-sales regulations. Poland now has a 12-year grace period -- five years longer than any other EU candidate -- before it will have to allow sales to foreigners.

Another factor driving farmers to hang on to their land is the lack of alternative work in a country where there is an 18 percent unemployment rate. But the mathematics of EU membership mean Poland will simply not be able to sustain the 2 million or so farmers presently working the country's land. The government has launched reforms designed to pare down the number of farmers to around 700,000 by encouraging buyouts to form larger farms that are better able to compete with those in the West, and offering incentives to farmers to seek alternative employment.

Next year, Poles will vote in a referendum on whether to join the EU. Opinion polls vary widely as to how people feel today. The organizers of last weekend's rally say that as many as 75 percent of Poles support EU membership. But other opinion polls indicate a much lower number of EU enthusiasts. The British "Economist" magazine in March quoted a poll saying only 55 percent of Poland's citizens support EU membership. The magazine said that number is dropping even further as more becomes known about the tough changes the EU demands.

One right-wing party, the League for Polish Families, counts many farmers among its supporters and last fall won 8 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections. Its views are broadcast on the Radio Marya station, which is openly hostile to EU entry.

One of Radio Marya's listeners is another small farmer from Grzmiaca, Waldemar Prus, who said EU membership will bring ruin to most Polish farmers and called the union "a sham." "Polish politicians and bureaucrats want to join the EU because there will be about 2,000 highly paid and comfortable jobs for them. But for most Poles who are not young enough to adapt to the new circumstances, it will be a disaster," Prus said.

The government is doing everything it can to ensure that the referendum yields a strong pro-EU membership result. It has launched a sweeping information and advertising campaign designed to highlight the valuable benefits of EU membership, such as large financial grants to improve Poland's infrastructure, increased foreign investment, and new job prospects for Poles in other EU countries.