Does the Polish Countryside have a Future in the European Union?

Saved in ICPPC as Speech to SEJM 13.11.01

Some tough decisions now lie ahead.

The agricultural sector is widely recognised both in Poland and in Brussels as the hardest area of negotiation for Poland’s entry into the EU and the conditions of entry will be decided in the coming nine months. It is of crucial importance that these work out in Poland’s favour.


The EU expects one thing above all other: that Polish agriculture should become ‘more competitive’. This means: become more like other European farming models. This in turn means fewer farmers, bigger farms, more agrichemicals, higher yields, poorer food quality and less biodiversity. It means being exposed to ‘free trade’ and the World Trade Organisation’s open market globalisation policies. This will put more power over agriculture and the countryside into the hands of ever fewer and ever larger US and European retail chains and transnational agrichemical and seed companies, and further diminish the power for governments to set the national agenda. Accepting entry into the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy in its current unreformed state means also accepting the destruction of the small peasant farmer and the diverse traditional patterns of the majority of the Polish countryside. About this there can be no doubt.

As the EU is a signatory to the World Trade Organisation, it must, under the previous General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, comply with a complete termination of agricultural production subsidies over the next 3 to 4 years. These subsidies are currently paid under the EU’s ‘first pillar’ scheme. In order to qualify for them, the Polish government has to conform to the ‘aquis communautaire’, the EU’s highly detailed standards for entry. This process has been happening for the past two years. It has already forced Polish abattoirs and processing plants to invest in new equipment and new hygiene standards to meet EU regulations. This has not been possible in most cases and they have had to close down, leaving a big gap in the local food chain, and with no financial compensation.

But even if Poland could comply with these standards – what good would it do? The answer is – none. The reason is that the EU is highly unlikely to commit financial resources for Polish agriculture in 2003/4, when Poland is due to join. A recent high level report from Professor Alain Pouliquen of INRA (National Institute for Agricultural Research), France, commissioned by the EU, states ” Immediate introduction of full direct income payments would not be appropriate, at least in the transition phase.” The report states that it would be unacceptable to fund the current subsistence style farming units because they do not “improve the competitiveness of Central Eastern European countries’ agriculture to EU – 15 levels.” Instead it suggests a series of measures to phase in financial support over a number of years – while the modernisation process goes forward. Under the ‘first pillar’ farmers with 5 to 15 hectares of land carrying cows, pigs, hens cereals and vegetables would draw no benefit from EU subsidies but would nevertheless have to conform to all the regulations required of those that do receive support.

CAP subsidies reward large farmers with acreage and per head animal payments that leave the small mixed farmer completely unrewarded. Currently 80% of financial support goes to just 20% of farms: the large, mostly arable monocultures. These same policies have already contributed to the collapse of the small farm in the UK, where 15,000 farmers have left the land every year for the last ten years. Incomes for those remaining have fallen by 70% in the past 4 years.

My conclusion is that this will bankrupt the vast majority of Polish farmers – which is what the EU wants. The report’s recommendations include devising a broad set of policies aimed at managing the subsequent “rural exodus” from the land. This supports previous EU estimates that the Polish countryside needs to take 1,200,000 farmers off the land in order to become “competitive” on the EU and world free trade market place.

However, the promotion of “competitive” free trade has contributed to the concentration of wealth in the hands of the rich few; growing inequality within and between nations; increasing poverty for the majority of the world’s peoples; displacement of farmers and farm workers, especially in Third World countries; and promotion of unsustainable patterns of production and consumption.

It is now widely agreed by NGOs across Europe that we need to move away from this model. That we need to protect cultural, biological, economic and social diversity; introduce progressive policies to prioritise local economies and trade; secure internationally recognised economic, cultural, social and labour rights; and reclaim sovereignty of peoples and national and sub-national democratic decision-making processes.

The only politically strong position worth taking (if entry is still being considered) is one which backs the radical reform of the CAP and the shift of financial support away from production subsidies and into environmental and social support schemes. This is known as the ‘second pillar’ of the CAP. A number of countries are pushing for such a change; but terms agreed in Berlin in 1999 mean that this reform can not happen until 2006 at the earliest. Poland would be wise to take careful note of this. Any entry negotiated before this date risks destroying the very qualities of the traditional Polish countryside that would be in line to receive support after 2006, as well as creating massive unemployment!

Given that we are now faced with a devastating level of global ecological mismanagement at the hands of corporate free trade interests, it should be argued that present ‘development’ models are far more damaging than ‘survival’ models, and that the self-sufficient peasant is the best survival model we have. The only body of society able to remain independent of complete victimisation by global corporate power is the independent farming community. Real democracy must therefore be rebuilt in the countryside.

The recommended foundation for action is
1. Absolute resistance to the current EU agricultural proposals amounting to a refusal to comply with ‘first pillar’ terms of entry
2. Proposing a set of policies that would be acceptable; broadly in line with other EU CAP reform countries – but with some extra, specifically Polish, considerations to take account of the particular circumstances
3. These should be built on the bullet points of Charter 21, since it already has the backing of the majority of countryside organisations.
4. This will require a blue-print action plan showing how a mixture of ecological food production, eco-tourism, renewable energy exploitation and diversification of small-to-medium-scale processing and manufacturing units can help rejuvenate the rural economy in the long term – and preserve the beauty and diversity of the Polish countryside.

Failure to act in this way now is likely to lead to the destruction of what is arguably Poland’s greatest asset. To succeed in these actions will put Poland at the centre of a major shift of direction which will ultimately bring untold benefits to millions of producers and consumers across the world. Decisions and actions taken in the next nine months are therefore of pivotal importance to the whole of Europe and beyond.

Julian Rose
November 2001