A funny kind of free market

Observations on the new EU

It's midday on a Thursday. More than a week has gone by since Poland joined the European Union. Lorries are queuing for 22 hours to cross the border with Germany at Pomellen. At Swiecko, the busiest crossing, it takes a mere ten hours.

You may have thought that, in the enlarged Europe, Polish goods - wild boar sausages, say - would be zooming to Britain in record time via the German autobahns. Not so. True, the wait is shorter than it was a few months ago, when it was sometimes as long as 48 hours, and I saw one headless trailer keeping a place in the queue, the driver presumably having sped elsewhere in his cab. But although cars are now virtually waved through at the border crossings, lorries still have to wait - and wait.

According to Krystyna Urbanska, of Poland's ministry of finance, queues built up just before the country joined the EU because drivers were trying to beat VAT rule changes. Now, under the new EU VAT regulations, it takes longer to get refunds. The 22-hour wait at Pomellen - some other crossing points had no queues at all - "was caused by a problem with the company providing IT software", explained Urbanska.

She added: "Export levels have increased as a result of the improved economic situation in Poland. Currency rates have made exporting more profitable." Customs has taken on more staff. The Polish authorities are developing an IT system compatible with Germany's. Poland has already introduced an electronic customs form and is waiting for the Germans to introduce the equivalent in a year and a half.

Supermarkets such as Asda and Marks & Spencer have sent "innovation" teams to identify cuisine ideas in the new EU states. But will they be able to send the results to the UK profitably once the cost of paying lorry drivers to sleep at borders is accounted for? What kind of free Europe - let alone free market - is this?