The European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, has unveiled plans to fund the 15-nation bloc's enlargement to 25 members by the year 2004. The commission is telling candidates for membership that they will have to wait 10 years before they get the same level of agricultural aid that current EU members enjoy.
It is not a message that the mostly poor former communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe want to hear. And Poland, the biggest of the candidates, has already reacted by saying the commission's proposals are unacceptable.
Poland and many of the other prospective EU members were looking forward to getting full access to the rich bounty of agricultural and regional aid funds that their better-off neighbors in Western Europe now receive. But the commission also had to contend with concerns among current members that funding would be diverted away from them and given to the poorer candidates.
European Commission President Romano Prodi told reporters through an interpreter Wednesday that the aid package is fair, balanced, and the best that can be squeezed out of the EU budget.
"I think we have struck a point of balance between the expectation of the candidate countries, their ability to absorb financing and the budgetary restraints of the European Union. In other words, what we are talking about here is the best possible solution. This is not, by any means, an invitation to start bartering," he said.
The take-it-or-leave-it offer to the candidates specifies that their farmers will get 25 percent of the subsidies allocated to their Western counterparts when they join the European Union in 2004. That will increase to 35 percent in 2006, but will not reach the full 100 percent until 2013.
Mr. Prodi tried to soften the blow to the candidates' expectations by saying that the Commission will devote a large part of its $35 billion aid package for aspiring members to rural development, instead of direct aid to farmers. He says the new members cannot absorb a large infusion of funds because their farm sectors are too fragile.
"New member states need effective incentives to encourage them to reform the obsolete structures of their farm sectors. Without wide-ranging reforms in their farm sectors, the new member states would be permanently plagued by such things as low productivity, declining quality, and, particularly, hidden unemployment," he said.
The Commission's proposals will now be discussed by current member states. But Poland has already suggested that if its farmers are not treated equally with Western European farmers, they will vote against their country joining the European Union.