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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Poles Nervous as Leaders Strive to Join EU

NEAR CIECHANOWIEC, Poland -- Romuald Lempicki has survived Nazi German occupation, Soviet communism and the 1990s "shock therapy" of market reforms, but fears the end could finally be in sight for his small family farm.

The gently-spoken 68-year-old sums up the anxiety of many of his countrymen about Poland's efforts to join the European Union by 2004.

"We are at a crossroads here and we don't know which way to take," he told a group of Brussels-based journalists visiting his modest dairy farm of 13 cows in eastern Poland.

Like the rest of Poland's farmers, he is digesting the details of a proposal from the European Commission last month that would extend generous rural development aid to 10, mostly impoverished, ex-communist countries after they join the European Union.

But more worryingly, the proposal also envisages direct payments to the newcomers worth only 25 percent of those dished out to farmers in the 15 current member states. This figure would rise gradually over 10 years to 100 percent.

"Yes, this is discrimination. Yes, people are angry," Lempicki said, adding that the proposal would give a competitive advantage to much richer farmers in Germany and France.

Lempicki also frets about the milk quota proposed for Poland under the EU's cumbersome Common Agricultural Policy, or CAP. At present, he is free to produce as much milk as he wants.

Asked whether his farm would be able to stay in business, Lempicki gave a philosophic shrug. "We might just pull through, but we wouldn't have the money to invest."

The sense of frustration is not confined to the farmers, who make up about one-quarter of Poland's workforce.

"Clearly we cannot regard the commission's proposal as the last word," said Jan Truszczynski, Poland's chief negotiator on EU accession, predicting months of difficult discussions.

He noted that after EU accession, Polish wheat prices would have to fall, bringing a loss of income that the lower direct payments proposed would fail to offset.

For the politicians, it is a matter not only of money but of principle. Poland, a proud, historic nation that has been at the epicenter of the tragic conflicts that ravaged 20th-century Europe, only wants to be treated equally and fairly, they say.

"We are not beggars, we just want the opportunity to compete on equal terms. We have already been squeezed out of our eastern markets because of EU subsidies [to current members' farmers]," said Agriculture Minister Jaroslaw Kalinowski.

Agriculture is by no means the only area where Poland fears it will effectively be a second-class member of the EU.

Truszczynski had to accept an EU proposal that would prevent Polish workers from moving freely within the bloc for up to seven years after enlargement, due mainly to German fears of a big influx of cheap labor from the east.

In Brussels, Polish complaints find little sympathy.

EU diplomats say countries such as Spain and Portugal faced similar restrictions on labor movement when they joined the EU in the 1980s. They also received less aid at the outset for their farmers and infrastructure projects than Poland and other new applicants will get.

At a meeting in Spain this month, many EU foreign ministers criticized the commission plan as too generous. Richer members want assurances on reform of the CAP, which eats up nearly half of the EU's annual 90 billion euro ($78.7 billion) budget, before signing up to any proposal on enlargement funding.