The EU might have its detractors and potential defectors, but in eastern Poland there is a sense of pride in being a member of the club – and more than that, a sense of gratitude towards Brussels. The latter is due largely to the EU structural funds that have flowed into the region since membership in 2004, and continue to do so, to support the development of Poland’s poorer areas.

The onus is on local officials to direct the funds in beneficial directions for their communities. “We are going to celebrate the 11th anniversary of Poland joining the European community. The funds that we have are minimal, but we pride ourselves in spending it wisely,” says the marshal of Podlaskie voivodeship, Mieczyslaw Kazimierz Baszko. “Thanks to the funds that we have been receiving, we are able to provide the best services and increase the conditions of living of our inhabitants.”

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Fierce pride

While the region still remains underdeveloped compared with many areas in the west of Poland, inhabitants of Podlaskie tend to be fiercely proud of the voivodeship and its rural charms.

Centred around its capital city of Białystok – an attractive city of 300,00 people with a generous swathe of parkland – Podlaskie is a green belt: 42% of the voivodeship consists of green areas and about 33% of it is protected land. “As one can see when looking at a map of the voivodeship, the green colour is dominant,” says Mr Baszko. “It is very unorthodox for European countries and other countries around the world to have an area that incorporates four national parks.”

An agrarian region known for its excellent food, Podlaskie has a long and noble history of farming that has evolved into a thriving agribusiness industry. The marshal – who says he is the “godfather” to an adopted bison, the animal that serves as the symbol of Białystok – is passionate on the topic of farming in the region and its patriotic roots.

“During communist times when land was being taken away [across Poland], the private farmers here were very proud that their farms were preserved and that they stood up against Stalin and the Soviet regime. They survived those difficult times and now they are the driving force for the local farming economy,” he says. “As farming developed, the food industry also developed alongside it on an industrial scale.”

Milking it

The bison might have pride of place on the logos for the region, but the cow also has its place: Białystok specialises in dairy production and accounts for 30% of milk produced in Poland.

As does the tree: timber and wood products are a big industry for Podlaskie and helped attract the biggest investor in the region, Ikea. The Swedish furniture retailer set up a factory in the small town of Orla in 2010 with a €150m investment and has continued to expand. Charged with producing wood materials for Ikea furniture, higher value functions are also being assigned to the factory, with product development centres being added at the site.

“There is a lot of willpower here [among workers] and a ‘yes we can’ attitude,” says Ulrika Garbe, the managing director of Ikea's Podlaskie plant. “There have been a lot of good efforts to get the workforce trained and we are co-operating with Białystok University of Technology.”

The technical university and others in Białystok – including the Medical University of Białystok and the University of Białystok – cater to more than 50,000 students. These skilled graduates are adding another element to the regional economy, one based on technology.

Support for this cluster has come from a familiar place – the EU, which has provided funding for the Białystok Science and Technology Park, providing workspace and services for companies and researchers in IT, business process outsourcing, biotechnology, electronics and other areas. These endeavours may not be based on working the fields, as with the predominant agribusiness industry, but do give Białystok and Podlaskie a chance to be leaders in new, emerging fields.