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Europe

Berlin and Warsaw to Discuss EU Membership

On Tuesday, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder flew to Warsaw to discuss conditions for Poland's membership in the European Union in 2004. A once EU-phoric country is now pressing Brussels with its own demands.

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Poland's prime minister (left) is seeking Chancellor Schröder's backing on sensitive issues

Less than a month ago, Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller pledged to toast Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern with a pint of Guinness after Ireland voted overwhelmingly to pave the way for Poland and nine other European nations to join the EU.

As Poland enters the final stretch of negotiations with Brussels, a more pitched tenor is emerging.

Polish media have begun reporting recently that Poles will have to give more to Brussels each year than they get back, creating a wave of resentment dangerously close to December's negotiation date.

"No one in Poland understands it," says Miller. "That would mean that we would be providing financial support for richer countries -- and that would be absurd."

The European Commission has rushed to deny the reports, emphasizing that neither Poland or any other of the 10 new countries expected to join the EU will see such a thing. According to the Commission's calculus, during its first year of EU membership in 2004, Poland will contribute approximately 2.4 billion euros ($2.39 billion) to the Union's overall budget while getting back 3.5 billion.

A skeptical press

But reports in the Polish press suggest that the close to 1 billion euro surplus exists on paper only. For example, newspapers have reported, in its projection the Commission's has included EU unity funds for major infrastructure projects that will be developed over a period of years. The money would be put on the books for 2004 but would first actually flow into Poland's coffers at some point in the future.

Against that backdrop, Polish negotiators are seeking a reduction in Poland's payments to Brussels during its early years of EU membership. But that's a demand the European Commission has staunchly refused to meet -- so far at least.

"The amount of the contribution is determined on the basis of a country's gross domestic product and tax revenues -- mostly sales tax and tariffs," Prime Minister Miller says. "It's simple to calculate. But it's also possible to imagine that the contributions could be paid using different methods. In negotiations, it's been assumed that the payment will be made monthly, divided over 12 months. But we should also consider less expensive payment methods for our country -- for example quarterly or biannual payments."

Looking for a pot sweetener

Ahead of a meeting with German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder Tuesday evening, Miller told Polish radio that Poland will seek greater agricultural subsidies as a way of making its payments to Brussels more attractive to its citizens. Currently, Polish farmers -- as well as those in the other accession countries -- are slated to receive 25 percent of the subsidies that are given to Western European EU members. But negotiators feel there is room to negotiate there.

"I think we're getting signals from the side of the EU member states that an increase of the starting sum of 25 percent for direct payments to farmers is possible," Miller says. "We'll soon see the amount. And I will raise this question with Chancellor Schröder (on Tuesday). I will also seek to convince the chancellor that Poland is in an authoritative economic position. And I will do everything I can to bring the German government over to our side in these discussions."

Agriculture is a particularly sensitive subject in Poland, where it accounts for 20 percent of the national labor market. Farmers are worried they will become an extinct species if Poland gets flooded by agricultural products from highly industrialized EU farms. They are also angry they will not be getting the same generous subsidies Brussels doles out to better-equipped Western European farmers.

But the Polish media and a number of Polish politicians are skeptical whether Miller can deliver. The more difficult the negotiations become, they say, the more likely it is Germany could become the greatest hindrance to Poland's accession to the EU next year.

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