Two farmers, one Europe, yet worlds apart

EU expansion fires debate over agriculture

Just four miles separate the farms of Austrian Friedrich Gabler and Czech Jan Vasa, but they have never met.

Twelve years after the Iron Curtain fell, the Austro-Czech border, which cuts through the hills between their farms, remains the dividing line between two worlds - one rich, the other poor. That division is likely to remain even after the Czech Republic takes its expected place alongside Austria and other current members of the European Union.

Of all the contentious issues of EU expansion, agricultural policy is the most divisive.

The EU, expected this week to invite the Czechs and nine other nations to join by 2004, lavishes generous farm subsidies on its current members. But farmers in the newcomer states are to receive only a quarter of what those in current members states do - along with a promise that the gap will be closed eventually.

EU Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler says the arrangement is fair because Eastern European farmers do not have to contend with the high production costs and quality controls that their Western counterparts do.

Some observers disagree. "It isn't fair at all, but the candidate countries don't have a lot of choice," says Heather Grabbe, an analyst with the Center for European Reform, a British think tank. "At this point, they [the newcomer countries] are very keen to finish the deal and get in[to the EU]. It is clear that the new states will receive much less than the current members do."

EU membership has been the top political goal for Central and Eastern European countries in the decade since the Iron Curtain fell. But farmers in the candidate countries - including the Czech Republic and its neighbors Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary - fear that EU conditions will "liquidate" their farms.

Last week, more than 10,000 farmers hurled potatoes through the windows of the Czech Ministry of Agriculture, the office handling negotiations with the EU on rural aid.

As the EU's Copenhagen summit neared, current EU members bickered over a proposal to raise farm subsidies for the 10 newcomers as a way of sweetening entrance deals.

The EU spends $49 billion a year, half its total budget, on agricultural subsidies. The next wave of enlargement will double the number of farmers in the Union, and its executive body, the European Commission, fears a budgetary crisis if subsidies are extended equally to the newcomers.

But it is farmers in the member states who are most in danger, says Miroslav Toman, the Czech Ministry of Agriculture's chief negotiator, predicting that EU membership will trigger bankruptcies among Czech farmers. "We are concentrating on achieving [more advantageous production] quotas for our farms within the EU," Mr. Toman says.

In Austria, Mr. Gabler receives about $28,000 per year in subsidies for his 75-acre farm. He produces seed potatoes and milk with the help of a shiny stainless-steel milking machine and a fleet of loaders and tractors. His products are certified organic, which brings in extra support from Brussels - support he says his 400-year-old family farm desperately needs.

"Since we joined the EU [in 1995], prices for our products have dropped," he says. "These days we are lucky to break even on the sale of our goods, so we live on the subsidies. Without EU subsidies, Austria can forget about agriculture."

The Gabler family works from early in the morning until evening, six days a week. Despite all the aid, five of the nine farms in their village have shut down in the past few years. Now, the European Commission is pressing for reforms that would cut subsidies across Europe over a 10-year period and slowly bring in the new member countries.

Economists say that the EU's subsidy program forces Europeans to pay 44 percent more for their food than they would on world markets.

"I want my son to continue our family tradition but if they cut the subsidies I can't see how he could," Gabler says, after cutting hay with his new air-conditioned, computerized tractor. "But I also realize that if we give the Czechs, Hungarians, and Poles the same subsidies, it will break the budget. We need the subsidies ourselves because farming in Austria is more about stewardship of the land than food production."

Austria's rural landscape is an essential part of its tourist economy. Northern Austria, especially, lures thousands of visitors annually with its picturesque patchwork of pristine fields, hedges, and woods, dotted with comfortable white-stucco farmhouses nestled in the foothills of the Alps.

Just across the border, in the Czech Republic, the picture is not so postcard worthy.

Vast fields lie untended and overgrown with weeds, the legacy of forced collectivization under Soviet rule, which left farms decimated and rural communities shattered. A rutted mud track leads to the crumbling stone gate of the Vasa farm. The communists stripped the family of their land and home in the 1950s and only returned it 10 years ago. The farmyard is full of rusting equipment, which Vasa's son endlessly tries to repair. The milking is done by hand.

"I like being a farmer," Mr. Vasa says, while tossing bundles of hay with a pitchfork. "But I am very much afraid that if we join the EU, that will be the end of our farm."

Vasa says EU regulations and production quotas, adopted in preparation for Czech entry to the Union, forced him out of the dairy business last year. Now he makes about $3,500 per year from selling the pigs and cattle he raises, plus $1,200 in subsidies from the Czech government. Although he will get even more in subsidies once the Czech Republic joins the EU, he fears that lower prices and competition from heavily subsidized, technologically equipped Western farms will put him out of business.

"I don't blame the Austrians, Germans, and French for not wanting to subsidize us," Vasa says. "I'm not asking for money, just a level playing field. I don't care if they don't give us any subsidies but, in that case, no one should get them. The fact remains that if we don't receive the same advantages as farmers in Austria, we will never be able to compete in the open market.

"It isn't about fair or not fair. It is about the survival of our farms."

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