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Friday, 30 November, 2001, 18:10 GMT
EU fears divide Poland
Andrzej Lepper
Mr Lepper's antics may represent a larger anti-EU revolt
By BBC Central Europe analyst Jan Repa

In a rowdy parliamentary sitting, Poland's controversial radical farmers leader, Andrzej Lepper - who opposes Polish entry into the European Union - has been stripped of his post as deputy speaker after describing Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz as a "scoundrel".


We talked about the fact that Poland is on the verge of bankruptcy, and what should be done to rescue the state

Leszek Miller

Until recently, Mr Lepper was regarded as an embarrassing joke by most urban Poles.

Then, suddenly, his Self-Defence Party - better known for blocking roads and depositing manure outside ministry buildings - won 53 parliamentary seats.

Analysts see Self-Defence as part of a wider political "revolt" by the large segment of Polish society which has not benefited from economic and social change and feels threatened by impending European Union membership.

These are, first and foremost, small farmers, pensioners, and the ultra-conservative wing of the Catholic Church.

Mr Lepper's antics are also seen by some as revealing a deeper insecurity about Poland's identity - a country that has traditionally seen itself as suspended between a "progressive" West and a socially and economically "backward" East.

Divide

Poland's new government, led by former Communists-turned-Social Democrats, like Prime Minister Leszek Miller, has made the acceleration of EU membership talks a top priority.

Farmers' rally
Rural resentment is fertile ground for populists

Mr Lepper's latest outburst followed an announcement that Mr Cimoszewicz had agreed to shorten considerably the period before foreigners - here, read Germans - can buy Polish land.

Mr Miller's government finds itself fighting on two fronts.

As well as holding off Poland's eurosceptics, it is facing a serious economic slowdown.

After growing at an annual rate of between 4% and 7% for most of the 1990s, Poland's economy slowed to 1.5% this year.

And it is expected to grow by little more than 1% in 2002.

Budget abyss

The result is a yawning budget deficit, which the government is trying to plug by cutting expenditure and raising taxes.

Leszek Miller
Leszek Miller is fighting several fronts

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Miller was trying to frighten his Peasant Party coalition partners into concessions.

"We talked about the budget, about what could happen if counter-measures are not taken, about the fact that Poland is on the verge of bankruptcy, and what should be done to rescue the state. That was the main issue in our talks," he said afterwards.

Mr Miller and his Finance Minister Marek Belka want to increase VAT on new buildings - which would affect farmers.

The Peasant Party wants a temporary increase in excise duties instead - which would complicate relations with the European Union.

A revised budget for 2002 is due to be presented to parliament next week.

Hopes

What happens to the Polish economy matters.

Poland is by far the biggest of the 12 countries currently negotiating EU entry - and the Germans, for one, say any enlargement that did not include Poland would be almost unthinkable.

Mr Miller and his colleagues can comfort themselves with two observations.

First, a public opinion poll result issued this week shows 61% actively supporting EU entry - 5% up on October.

Second, analysts now think the economic slowdown in America and other Western countries may prove shorter than feared, which ought to help Polish exports and the economy generally.

See also:

27 Sep 01 | Europe
The rise of Poland's new radicals
24 Sep 01 | Europe
Left victorious in Poland
08 Mar 01 | Europe
Prodi urges Polish reforms
14 Jun 01 | Europe
The candidate countries
15 Jan 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Poland
12 Feb 01 | Europe
Timeline: Poland
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