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Poland: EU Bid Causing Doom, Gloom, And Confusion

Poland is the giant among the Eastern European candidates for membership in the European Union. But its negotiations with the EU have not been easy, and there are fears both inside the EU and in Poland itself about the consequences of Polish membership. These fears are being increased partly because of a lack of information on what membership will really mean for the Polish economy.

Prague, 15 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Confusion and gloom seem to dominate the present mood in Poland over the question of Polish membership in the European Union.

Poland is by far the biggest of the Eastern candidate nations that are set to begin entering the EU by 2004. But its long entry negotiations are proving difficult, and the issue of membership has become entangled in the public mind with the hardships imposed by a serious downturn in the national economy.

Tired out by a tough decade of transition to a market economy, the morale of Poles is sagging, and an earlier air of optimism has dissipated.

Analyst Miraslava Grabowska of Warsaw University's Institute of Sociology sums up the situation by saying, "There is no trust in the government, that the government is able to cope with this [economic] situation, and [people believe] that joining the European Union will not help us solve this problem."

Unemployment is running at 17.5 percent, and there are fears it will rise further. Grabowska continues: "The situation is really very cloudy in Poland, because of many things, including the demographic factor. Right now, the most numerous generation [of young people] is entering the job market, and I cannot see how the government is going to cope with the problem."

The government of Prime Minister Leszek Miller is hoping that EU membership will lift Poland out of its economic troubles. It is evidently aware of the doubts that are beginning to spread through the community, fuelled by vocal anti-EU groups based mostly in the farming community. In May, the government opened a national media campaign to provide information about the EU. As part of the campaign, an "information bus" has recently set off on a two-month tour of the nation, aiming to show local communities how their regions will benefit from EU membership.

One of the volunteers on the bus, 22-year-old student Radoslaw Konieczny, told reporters before leaving Warsaw that, at present, "Poles don't really know what to expect from EU membership, and ignorance breeds fear."

Aleksander Smolar is head of the Stefan Batory Foundation in Poland, which aims to address the issues raised by integration and its implications for Poland and the region. Smolar says the problem is one of perception rather than reality. He notes that public opinion polls continue to show that two of his fellow citizens favor EU membership to every one who is opposed -- that is, more than 50 percent in favor, compared to 22 percent against.

But he says he is concerned that the negative perceptions might have an impact on the turnout figures for the coming national referendum on EU membership, which could be held as early as next spring. He says a turnout of at least 50 percent of the electorate is necessary to validate the referendum, and that this will be hard to achieve.

"There is a lot of anxiety and fear, and the anxiety and fear concerning European Union enlargement is one of the elements of the larger picture, which is not very positive at present. [Of course,] this can be a transitional phenomenon, provided that there is an upturn in the [country's] economic situation."

Smolar acknowledges that there is a certain "exaggeration" or "irrealism" in the way Poles are approaching the issue of EU membership. But at the same time, he says the EU itself has done little to stem this anxiety, and the general perception in Poland is that the Westerners lack "goodwill" in helping Poland with its particular problems.

Analyst Grabowska agrees, saying the membership negotiations are not negotiations between equals: "It is being felt like this by Polish society, namely that the European Union tries -- and is effective -- in efforts to impose its conditions upon us."

At the heart of the Polish discontent is the EU proposal to pay the incoming members initially only 25 percent of the level of agricultural subsidies that is received by present members. Brussels says that is as much as the candidates' economies can sensibly absorb, but Poland in particular has taken the offer as a sign that the newcomers will not receive equal treatment.

The EU member states have added to the heat surrounding this issue by having major differences among themselves. Germany, the biggest net contributor to the EU budget, has been pushing for an early reform of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy, so that it does not have to pay more farm subsidies to the candidates due to join in 2004. However, France -- the main beneficiary of EU farm aid -- refuses to consider a reform before the current budget expires in 2006.

For Poland, the question of agriculture is a vital one. It has the largest -- and probably the most inefficient -- farm sector of any of the candidates. The uncertainty over which farms will qualify for subsidies, and which will not, as well as what level of payment they will receive, only serves to feed the anti-EU voices among the farmers.