TCS Daily

Down to the Crossroads

By Radek Sikorski - September 6, 2002 12:00 AM

KRYNICA, Poland - Once a year, the leading politicians of central Europe meet in Krynica in southern Poland to discuss current events in a Davos-like atmosphere. This year's meeting, the twelfth, is likely to be more contentious than usual. Prime ministers and presidents from most new democracies have gathered to discuss, among other things, their applications to join the EU. (Go to to see the program for this year's forum.)

Joining the EU is more controversial than many politicians in this part of the world expected. First and foremost, in order to be considered for membership, one must first adopt a broad set of regulations in virtually every area of business and life. From environmental regulations, to agricultural restrictions and tax proscriptions, a country must undergo a dramatic transformation in order to join the club. While one might consider these costs just part of the game, sort of like a fraternity's hazing ritual, the economic and political impact is profound. Most importantly, the costs of achieving proper candidacy are immediate and tangible. For example a country must adopt a Value-Added Tax (VAT) of at least 15 percent before seeking membership. The benefits of membership, however, are only speculative, and in any case cannot be realized until membership occurs.

The politics of EU membership varies significantly across countries. For Poland, the host country for the conference, the EU's Byzantine agricultural racket is a particularly contentious issue. Unlike most of Europe, Poland has an agricultural sector that is unsubsidized and that produces wholesome organic food at about half the EU price, mostly because the land is so famously arable. Poland accomplishes this not through industrialized agriculture, but rather, through the hard work of hundreds of thousands of small farmers. After joining the EU, each individual Polish farmer will have to moonlight as a bureaucrat, filling out hundreds of pages of forms to qualify for EU subsidies. His methods will also be subject to EU scrutiny, with the end result being higher prices for Polish agriculture, and a reduced threat to western European farmers. So at the present time, Polish farmers are less than thrilled about EU membership, except for those large-scale producers who eagerly anticipate EU subsidies.

Fishermen are also upset. EU membership will allow EU industrial trawlers to vacuum fish out of Polish waters. This will create a new "tragedy of the commons" in the Baltic, and by some estimate, threaten the livelihoods of 30,000 Polish fishermen.

The coalition of angry, anti-EU folks is unusually diverse, and is not limited to those who produce foodstuffs. Other pockets of Poland that are adamantly opposed to membership include, fundamentalist Catholics (who fear the "ungodly" European culture), right-wing populists (who draw on Buchanan-like fears), and small businessmen (who fear the well-financed "big-box" retailers from the west.)

On the other side, however, there is an equally diverse group, ranging from left-wing intellectuals to right-wing pragmatists. Their mainstream view seems to be that EU membership is desirable not because the EU is perfect or that membership will guarantee economic prosperity, but rather because Poland needs geo-strategic anchoring in the west. With about 70 percent of its trade conducted with the EU, Poland has to follow the EU norms and regulations anyway, without having any say in formulating them. After joining, so the argument goes, central European ministers may present western Europeans with something they least expected - a powerful and sometimes unified voice against creeping statism.

What are the dangers and benefits of EU membership? Over the next few days here in Krynica, central Europe's leading politicians will discuss their perspectives. With referenda scheduled for next year, the story that these ministers converge to here, may well be the view presented to the people of the emerging democracies as they make the fateful decision to join or not. We will report on the events of each day here at, live from Krynica.



TCS Daily Archives