Eastern rural zones divided on EU

  • 2003-03-27
  • Beatrice Khadige

Rural communities in the former communist bloc range from hesitant to downright opposed ahead of their countries' referendums on European Union membership.

From Estonia to Hungary, the concerns are the same about May 2004 membership of the bloc as national referendums loom in the weeks and months to come.

Will small farmers lose their capacity to manage their production? Are they in danger of losing their land? Will large producers be able to match up to competition from farmers in the bloc's 15 existing EU member states?

Will EU quotas destroy milk production? And will the the cost of EU sanitary regulations not drive farmers to ruin?

So deep are the concerns that although opinion polls point to a "yes" vote in all candidate countries, the authorities are investing millions of euros in campaigns to reassure and convince rural communities to take the leap.

Most worried are small farmers, who fear they are going to lose everything once their country joins the EU.

No more so than in the EU's biggest member-to-be Poland, where small farmers make up the majority of the rural population, which accounts for more than a third of the country's 38 million inhabitants.

"How can it be possible that they can have proposed to someone poorer a quarter of the aid that a farmer in a richer country receives? It's absurd," Wladyslaw Serafin, head of Poland's biggest farmers' union, Kzrkor, said.

"The Polish farmer should receive 125 percent of the subsidies and not 25 percent."

He points out that the position of his million-strong union is the least radical where the EU is concerned. Other organizations, including the agricultural Solidarity movement and the radical peasants' party Samoobrona, are openly anti-EU.

The recent firing of Farm Minister Jaroslaw Kalinowski and his less radical Peasants' Party from the leftist coalition of Prime Minister Leszek Miller, leaves the Polish leader facing farmers single-handed.

In a sign of the challenge, last week the ousted minister set three conditions which must be met if his party is to support a "yes" vote in a referendum expected at the beginning of June.

At the EU's landmark Copenhagen summit in December, Poland extracted concessions from the bloc, increasing to 55 percent the ceiling on the amount of direct aid its farmers can receive from 2004, instead of the 25 percent originally planned.

While farmers in Poland consider the concession a smoke screen, other countries have welcomed it, while demanding guarantees.

The EU wants to phase in its subsidies to farmers in new-member countries over a 10-year period, meaning they will only get the same amount as farmers in the current member states in 2013. Any extra aid will have to come from the state's own coffers.

"We will call on the government to guarantee the conditions negotiated in Brussels," Ivan Oravec, president of the Slovakian agriculture chamber, said.

Inesse Rederai of the Latvian Farmers Federation pointed to "a lot of administrative work involved, new veterinarian requirements and the necessity for investment."

Many other agricultural organizations conclude, nevertheless, that it is more advantageous to join the EU than stay out.

In Hungary, farmers grouped in the leftist MOSZ say that if the aid received is lower than what was promised, it will still be more than they get at the moment - which is nothing.

"We are not happy with the conditions obtained," Villu Reilan, president of the rural People's Union in Estonia, said. "But we prefer to vote in favour rather than against. We can no longer change anything."