“The land is ours. It’s not European and we have taken it, we have given it to the rightful people…. Those of white extraction who happen to be in the country and are farming are welcome to do so, but they must do so on the basis of equality.” The words of Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe, a loving leader no doubt, but not the first port of call for lessons in economics or boosting agricultural production. Which makes it rather odd, therefore, that his particularly warm approach to farmers he deems to be foreign (even if in reality Zimbabwean) appears to have been adopted, albeit it in a modified form and for different reasons, in Poland.
Last week, the Sejm, the lower house of the polish parliament, passed legislation to impose restrictions on the purchase of agricultural of land by citizens of other EU countries, in anticipation of the automatic relaxation of the existing restrictions in May 2016. These date from when Poland joined the EU in May 2004. Then Poland was granted a twelve-year period during which the purchase of agricultural land by foreigners would require a special permit from the Minister of Internal Affairs.
As this period of protection is due to expire next year, there has been some concern that the low price of agricultural land in Poland relative to the prices in Western Europe could lead to land speculation by foreign investors. The fear is that this could potentially price local farmers out of the market and the discontent this caused was one of the reasons for the farmers protests earlier this year – you remember, the ones where farmers turned up in brand new €100,000 tractors to plead poverty.
Under the new law there will be restrictions on land purchases by foreigners to prevent speculation, fir example making sure that the land is used for agriculture and that the buyers have relevant qualifications – at least that’s an advance on Comrade Bob – and no foreign individual or company will be able to own more than 300 hectares.
Of course, there won’t be any speculation unless existing farmers choose to sell their land – nobody will be forcing them to do so – and if they do choose to sell, why should they be denied the full economic benefit of the value of their land? Those that don’t sell will also benefit from increasing land prices which will enable more investment in the sector, to the good of all not least Poland’s thriving agricultural export sector: for example, exports of livestock, meat and poultry products to markets outside the EU grew 42.8 per cent year-on-year in January to April 2015. Or perhaps more investment in irrigation systems, given the warning from the Institute of Soil Science and Plant Cultivation that there is a threat of agricultural drought around the whole country, with spring cereals in 3.2 per cent of arable land particularly at risk.
According to the Agriculture Minister, Marek Sawicki this law is in accordance with EU law as it is modelled on a French law (I won’t say it) although the European Commission has recently questioned similar laws in other countries including Lithuania, Hungary and Bulgaria, since these laws may constitute discrimination against some EU citizens. The Supreme Audit Office did claimed in a report in 2014 that the current restrictions had not prevented many foreigners from owning Polish agricultural land by exploiting various loopholes, such as acquiring shares in Polish registered companies which own the land.
Be that as it may, it does seem to be yet another example of Poland expecting the rest of the EU to apply the rules when they work in favour of Poland, but expecting to be excused when they do not. The EU imposes emission standards, but Poland’s reliance on coal powered power stations makes it a special case; hundreds of thousands of Poles emigrate to elsewhere in the EU, but Poland would rather not accept a couple of thousand as part of the EU’s humanitarian efforts in the Mediterranean, and so on. Of course, the picture is never quite that simple but, even so, it seems unlikely that Poland’s message to the EU, to paraphrase President Kennedy, will work forever: “Ask not what Poland can do for you, but what you can do for Poland.”