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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 June, 2003, 18:06 GMT 19:06 UK
Poland weighs EU pros and cons

By Oana Lungescu
BBC, Bialystok

In staunchly catholic Poland, this weekend's referendum on EU membership has divine blessing.

Pope John Paul II himself has told his countrymen that Poland's place is at the heart of Europe.

Jan Boslowicz
EU grants are available for younger farmers
In fact tens of thousands of Poles are already living at the heart of Europe - in the Belgian capital, Brussels.

But many are working illegally, as cleaners and builders. At the packed Polish church in Brussels, one woman told me she would take the coach back to Poland to cast her vote.

"If Poland joins the EU, it will be easier for my children to find jobs back home, instead of going abroad like us," she said.

Many of the Poles in Belgium come from the east of the country and particularly from the sleepy town of Siemiatycze.

Foreign languages

Unemployment here stands at less than half the 18% national rate. But that's because Siematycze is also known as "Little Belgium."

Cezary Mudel
I'll try my luck in Poland for now... because things may change for the better
Cezary Mudel, entrepreneur
One third of the town's 17,000 people go to Belgium to work, taking the weekly coach straight to Brussels.

Cezary Mudel and his father have come back to build a new shop, a hotel and a restaurant with the money earned in Belgium.

"I'll try my luck in Poland for now," he said, "because Poland is going to join the EU and things may change for the better.

"But if nothing changes, we'll have to start learning foreign languages to go abroad again."

The Polish countryside, where one in four Poles live, is light-years behind the rest of Europe.

Old and new tractors

In the village of Augustowa, Jan Boslowicz is showing off a new hay-baling machine, one of several he bought with an EU grant.

We won't stand a chance to sell our wheat and corn, not even in Poland
Henryk, elderly farmer
But no-one else in his village is planning to apply for the scheme.

They are all over 50, he told me, and therefore ineligible for the grant.

He added that they spend most of their time fixing tractors that are almost as old as they are themselves.

Up to one million family farms in Poland could go under in the highly competitive agricultural market of the EU.

An elderly farmer, Henryk, told me he was afraid that the Polish market would be flooded by cheap wheat from the EU.

"We won't stand a chance to sell our wheat and corn, not even in Poland," he says.

"Because EU wheat, which is 100% subsidised, will be so cheap."

His son Vinicius, however, will vote Yes in the referendum, even though he's disappointed that those drafting the new EU constitution have decided to make no reference to God.

Doors opening

For business people too, the EU will help some, and hinder others.

Young people of Bialystok say Yes to the EU
Bialystok youth see opportunities in the EU (Picture: Regional Information Agency, Bialystok)
One firm I visited in the regional capital, Bialystok, will have to spend lots of money to get European certificates, simply in order to stay in business.

However managers at another firm, which exports machines to the EU and the US, are looking forward to EU membership.

Only Brussels, they say, can force the Polish Government to undertake the fiscal and banking reforms that entrepreneurs need.

There is a general feeling in Bialystok that the EU will open doors for young people.

Many people hope their children will be able to study at foreign universities.

"It will be easier for us to travel around the world, and for me that's the most important thing," said one young woman.

She also believed that unemployment would fall - but was not predicting any miracles.

Real changes, she said, would take 50 or 60 years.

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