Polish farmers demand less interference from EU ahead of vote

Polish farmers protest against the EU's Green Deal ahead of EU parliamentary elections, in Warsaw

By Malgorzata Wojtunik and Kuba Stezycki

SADLUKI, Poland (Reuters) - For 33-year-old Polish farmer Mateusz Kulecki, June's European Parliament elections could be a chance to elect representatives that will fight against what he says is excessive bureaucracy and interference in how he runs his land.

A neighbour of Ukraine, Poland has become a hotspot for protests that sprang up across Europe as farmers railed against cheap imports from the war-torn country, as well as restrictions placed on them by the EU's "Green Deal" to tackle climate change.

"If we, as farmers, manage to influence the election results ... then I think it will be a good sign for both the farmers as well as the society and the governments, that people take things in their own hands and have power to change some things," Kulecki said.

However, he is not optimistic that the elections will bring radical change and believes farmers will need to keep protesting.

"We are not (protesting) for some subsidies, some allowances, but for our problems to be solved with some systemic solutions," he said.

Kulecki said that although farmers do not have a party that specifically represents their interests, there are several farmers who run for the European Parliament - mostly belonging to the Confederation party, which according to the fastest polls could win 13% of the votes in Poland.

To appease farmers, the EU has loosened environmental regulations on fallow land.

But the overall Green Deal vision for helping tackle climate change remains intact, supported by more than two dozen laws passed over the last five years to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that cause it.

GREEN DEAL

While Polish farmers point to the problems EU policies cause for them, the government is keen to stress the benefits two decades of membership have brought the country.

"In the 20 years of our presence in the EU, the value of our agricultural exports has increased 10 fold," said Poland’s agriculture minister Czeslaw Siekierski.

According to the Polish Academy of Sciences, the main transformative factor has been the inflow of funds to agriculture.

The Institute of Public Finance of Poland has counted that from the beginning of integration into the EU until 2023, Polish agriculture received 67.1 billion euros ($73 billion).

Income per full-time farmer has increased more than 2.5 times since 2004, according to Central Statistical Office of Poland.

But Kulecki argues that although farmers see the pool of money growing, funds are being spent on things that do not help agricultural production.

"It is harder and harder to get any subsidies because first, you need to meet all the standards, which are exorbitant, and there are more and more of them added each year," said Kulecki.

He also noted that although new eco-schemes are beneficial for encouraging changes in sowing structures to receive higher subsidies, they treat all farmers the same despite differences in soil.

To address farmers' demands for reducing bureaucracy, the European Parliament exempted small farmers from compliance controls.

"In the case of Polish agriculture, when most farms are below 10 hectares, around a fourth of farms will be excluded from these control restrictions of the European Green Deal," said Slawomir Kalinowski, a professor at the Institute of Rural Development and Agriculture of the Polish Academy of Sciences.

However farmers says the amendments are not enough as the Green Deal needs real changes.

"They should simply let us do things our way," Kulecki said, referring to the EU. "The farms are multi-generational, family ones. If we hadn't known how to run a farm, if we had neglected the soil, I wouldn't be here today."

($1 = 0.9195 euros)

(Reporting by Malgorzata Wojtunik, Kuba Stezycki, Barbara Erling and Kacper Pempel; Editing by David Holmes)