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EU Enlargement Thursday, 12 March, 1998, 09:33 GMT
Polish enthusiasm for Europe is waning
Polish carrot farmers
About 40% of workers in Poland work in agriculture - and are wary of the EU
As James Coomarasamy reports from Warsaw, there are signs that among ordinary Poles enthusiasm for EU membership is slipping.

For years, Poland has been at the vanguard of post-communist countries hoping to join the European Union. It was the first Eastern-bloc domino to fall in the late1980s and its people have always seen themselves as part of the European family; albeit as relatives who have often been victims of their neighbour's imperial ambitions.

But, on the eve of full accession talks with Brussels, there are signs that enthusiasm for EU entry among ordinary Poles is slipping.

This, government officials argue, is a natural phenomenon. It was inevitable, they say, that once the question of EU entry moved from general declarations to discussion of practicalities, Poles would remove their rose-tinted spectacles.

Poland's farmers are wary of Europe

That is certainly happening. Take Poland's dairy farmers, for instance. Although, in the long run, they might be hopeful for a share of the European Union's structural funds, in the short term they find the club that they are about to join refuses to accept their produce.

Last December, Brussels slapped a ban on all Polish milk products, saying that - despite several warnings - Polish farmers had not raised their standards of hygiene sufficiently. With 40 % of Poles still employed on the land, the implications for EU support of this sort of decision are clear.

The need to meet EU obligations has been affecting another sector of Polish society; the thousands of small-time traders, who rely on cross-border traffic with countries like Russia and Belarus for their livelihood. This is especially true in Poland's eastern provinces, where this semi-official business is often the only viable means of employment.

Partly in response to calls from Brussels to tighten up its border controls, the Polish government has imposed new restrictions on visitors from Russia and Belarus. This has had an immediate effect on Poland's multi-billion dollar "grey" economy, and angry Polish traders have been blocking the borders in protest.

Inciting Euro-scepticism

However much pressure the European Union did exert on this issue, the Polish media has picked up on the idea that Brussels was to blame. Experience in EU member countries has shown that once that concept gets into the public consciousness, it is a hard one to dismiss. And, of course, it is often not in the national government's interest to do so.

The more official Polish businessmen are also developing a sense of realism. Aware that Western markets are likely to be lukewarm about welcoming their lower quality goods, many companies are turning back towards Poland's traditional markets in the east.

Roman Kluska, head of a highly successful computer firm, is just one Polish businessman who publicly extols the virtues of trading with countries like Ukraine and Russia.

Positive feelings remain

Despite all of this, the majority of Poles are still in favour of EU entry, although official statistics are scarce. Many, especially in poorly-paid state sectors like the health service, see joining the Union as a lifeline and in some cases, as the chance to find better paid work in other countries.

But more and more pro-European Poles are warning against complacency. They say that with much of the current focus on the short-term costs of EU membership, the governments failure to explain the long-term benefits could send approval ratings dropping even further.

Europe Today - a news programme from the BBC World Service about Europe for Europe

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21 Nov 97 | Europe
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