On May 1, 10 countries, most of them former communist nations, will join the European Union, bringing the bloc's total membership to 25. The biggest of the 10 incoming members is Poland. And EU membership is expected to bring serious upheaval to the lives of Polish farmers.
More than any other of the new EU members, Poland relies on agriculture. Fully 20 percent of its 38 million people depend on farming for a living. But that will change when Poland becomes an EU member, because many of those people will be faced with competition from heavily subsidized western farmers and may eventually have to leave the land.
Grzegorz Kostrzewa-Zorbas, who heads the Saga Foundation, a research institute in Warsaw, said Polish farmers are not ready for such competition. "The Polish agricultural industry will, as a whole, suffer, will have to adjust in a dramatic way. They are mentally unprepared. This is another world. This is a culture shock," he said.
Aggravating the expected culture shock is a decision by the current 15 EU members to begin giving Polish and other Eastern European farmers subsidies that will be only 25 percent of those that their Western European counterparts receive.
Richard Rozwadowski, who owns 300 dairy cows in western Poland, said he is able to deal with competition, but understands the frustration felt by farmers with smaller holdings. "Subsidies that the Polish farmers will get in direct payments are much lower than those in the European Union, so they say, rightly, why should our neighbor in Germany on the other side of the Oder River be getting perhaps more than double what his neighbor in Poland is getting in direct payments," he said.
But EU enlargement commissioner Guenter Verheugen says Polish farmers and their counterparts in the other new member states will get 100 percent of the subsidies Western European farmers get by 2013, through a process of gradually increasing such payments.
Mr. Verheugen said that, if that were not the case, Polish farmers would have no incentive to modernize. "There are huge differences in production costs, of course. The land is much cheaper in these countries. Wages are cheaper. The market situation is completely different. And if you would give them 100 percent and would not have phasing in - that is what we are doing - the result would be that the absolutely necessary restructuring of the agricultural sector, particularly in Poland, would not start," he said.
Agricultural subsidies account for one-half of the $120 billion annual EU budget. Those subsidies provide about a quarter of the income of most EU farmers.
But EU officials say it would be too costly to fully extend those benefits to Eastern European farmers. They also question whether Poland's creaking bureaucracy can absorb and distribute such a high level of payments.
The Polish agency in charge of restructuring and modernizing agriculture says about half of Poland's farmers have yet to sign up for EU subsidies, despite a May 25 deadline.
Dairy farmer Richard Rozwadowski, who is also a World Bank consultant, said the forms involved are so complicated that even he has decided to forego applying for payments from Brussels. "The original application forms were about 50 pages. So horrendously difficult," he said. "We found it very difficult to meet the criteria, so we are modernizing some of our dairy equipment and not applying for the grant."
Skepticism about the benefits of EU membership is deeply rooted among farmers, especially among those with small plots who are not likely to profit from it. But Mr. Rozwadowski said modernization is the only choice for Polish agriculture. "That restructuring process has got to happen, and these farmers, many of these farmers, will find it difficult to make a living and will probably leave the land at some point," he said.
But analyst Lena Kolarska-Bobinska, who heads a Warsaw research institute called the Committee on Public Affairs, argues that the situation is not as dramatic as Mr. Rozwadowski suggests. She said nearly half of Poland's farms produce only for their owners' immediate needs, not for the market. "Those who work for the market, the big ones, are probably prepared and restructuring and fulfilling all the conditions. The problem is with the lower-medium group, which is not producing enough to become rich and profitable. On the other hand, it is very difficult for them to restructure. But I think that this process of changing the face of Polish agriculture will take quite a long time. It will not be a dramatic process taking place in one or two years," she said.
Ms. Bobinska said only one-fourth of Polish farmers rely on their land for income and that the rest hold down other jobs and engage in farming on the side, whether for extra money or to feed their families. She maintains that, once EU funds for infrastructure improvement start pouring in, they will create new sources of income in the countryside and in small towns.
But concern about what EU membership will bring is so high in rural areas that a group claiming to defend farmers' interests, the Self-Defense Party, has risen to the top of the opinion polls with 29 percent of voter preferences, if elections were held today. Its leader, former pig-farmer Andrzej Lepper, has vowed to take Poland out of the European Union if his party gets into government.