Poland resists 'second class' membership

EU Enlargement: Timetable now in doubt amid seething rows over nationality, sovereignty and cash
Click to follow

The Polish Prime Minister raised the stakes over his country's bid to join the European Union yesterday, promising to resign if he loses a referendum on the issue next year.

Although opinion polls show a majority of Poles back membership, plans to delay full EU subsidies for farmers for a decade have provoked a backlash over "second class" membership in the countryside.

"This referendum is so important that if it was to be lost it would mean a failure of the government and a government that failed would have to resign," Leszek Miller said. His comments underline the problems facing negotiators asthe EU pushes ahead with plans to admit 10 new members from the former Communist bloc of central and Eastern Europe in 2004.

The European Commission's proposals to phase in direct subsidies to farmers over 10 years, beginning with 25 per cent of the full amount, haveinfuriated farmers in Poland. Several EU governments that want to reform the Common Agricultural Policy, including Britain and Germany, believe that the Commission's plans are already too generous.

Yesterday Mr Miller made a plea for more money up front. "For us the debate on whether the EU will be able to raise that initial 25 per cent threshold or shorten the transition period is crucial," he said.

The comments come amid concern over the timetable for enlargement, which has been thrown into doubt by a series of disputes over nationality, sovereignty and the cash new countries hope to gain.

In Brussels, officials were relieved by the outcome of the first round of voting in Hungary over the weekend, which left the socialists placed to topple Viktor Orban's conservative alliance, and form a majority centre-left government.

Crucially, the extreme right and xenophobic Justice & Life Party (MIEP) scored 4.47 per cent, below the minimum 5 per cent entry threshold into the 386-seat parliament, removing any prospect of it taking a role in government. But the finalresult will not be clear before a second round of voting in two weeks' time.

The political battle in Hungary, one of Eastern Europe's star economies, has only served to illustrate the difficulties ahead.

Two years ago 14 EU countries cutties with Austria over the inclusion of Jörg Haider's right-wing Freedom Party in the government. The idea of more xenophobic parties such as MIEP seizing power has caused alarm within the EU.

Mr Orban, the 38-year-old Prime Minister of Hungary, struck a nationalistic tone in late campaigning, in an apparent attempt to woo right-wing support. Hungary had to cede two thirds of its territory and lost about a third of its population to neighbouring states after the First World War and Mr Orban has sought to exploit a sense of national humiliation by calling for the, "reunification of the nation across the borders".

Nor is Hungary the only nation grappling with a messy historical legacy. The fate of the German speakers of the Sudentenland, who were accused of supporting Hitler and expelled after the Second World War, has re-emerged to haunt the region. Wolfgang Schüssel, the Austrian Chancellor, and Mr Orban have demanded annulment of the Benes Decrees, the Czechoslovak laws under which 2.5 million Germans and about 30,000 Hungarians were deported. A brusque response from the Czech premier, Milos Zeman, who said the deportees could have been executed as traitors, provoked a diplomatic spat with Germany.

Austria has also raised the same issue of the rights ofGerman-speaking former residents of Slovenia.

In Poland, farmers worried that German counterparts would buy up cheap land after joining the EU have won a "transition period" to ensure no foreigners can buy land for 12 years after accession.

Looming elections in Slovakia present the prospect of a return to power for Vladimir Meciar, the authoritarian former prime minister who heads the single largest party, the HZDS. During his first period in office, accession negotiations with the EU were delayed because of Mr Meciar's nationalistic style. Slovakia's application to join Nato could also be hampered if he is elected.

Diplomats believe that the bigger dangers to enlargement lie in some of the better-known disputes. The issue of Cyprus will come to a crunch this autumn when – failing an agreement between the Greek and Turkish communities – the EU is expected to say it will admit a divided island. That would provoke confrontation with Turkey, but the Greek parliament has warned that it will not ratify any enlargement treaty if Cyprus is excluded.

Meanwhile, the Nice Treaty, which paves the way for the new nations to join, has still not come into force because of its rejection in a referendum in Ireland last year. Another attempt to ratify the treaty is expected in the autumn.

And the most awkward and difficult negotiations over the financing of the EU's expansion are still to come.