In 2004 fortress Europe is expected to let down its drawbridge and welcome 10 mainly former Eastern bloc countries into the European Union. On the surface, the agri-food industry should feel threatened by the possibility of a flood of cheap products on to the EU market from countries where low labour costs can manifest themselves in more competitive prices.
But first the new members will have to lift manufacturing and farming standards to match those in the rest of Europe. And, argue food industry bodies, that is not likely to happen for quite a while.
The 10 countries are the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Cyprus and Malta which, together, will bring 100 million more consumers into the EU.
The short-term threat is minimal, says Clare Cheney, director general of the Provision Trade Federation, although she acknowledges a potential long-term threat to business.
PTF members are less concerned about the volume of imports than the safety and hygiene standards in these countries, she says. "They are not as high as in the UK and that will have to be overcome," she warns. "Any substandard imports should not be accepted by importers."
In fact, in the short term, members could well benefit from EU enlargement. "In terms of exports there is a lot of bureaucracy that our members go through at the moment that will be lifted once these countries join the European Union. It will make their job a lot easier."
Peter Dawson, commercial manager of the Dairy Industry Association agrees, saying that its members are confident there is no immediate threat because milk quotas would be set and produce quality would keep them ahead in the market.
Derrick Wilkinson, the National Farmers' Union's chief economist, also takes a positive view of enlargement in terms of opportunities for the UK, forecasting an increased flow of processed foods from western Europe to the east.
The overall effect of enlargement for the new member countries, he says, will be improved national economies giving them the ability to enjoy a higher standard of living. "They will want higher value products, ready meals and goods such as jams, at a higher quality," he says. And Wilkinson's optimistic view of new export opportunities for the UK is supported by the Food and Drink Federation, although it sounds a note of caution for the economy as a whole, warning that the former Eastern bloc countries may become a more attractive place for investment than Britain in the future.
However, its key concern for the immediate future is the thorough application of food safety controls.
The Sea Fish Industry Authority takes a benign view of enlargement, saying it is unlikely to entail any changes to the business interests of its members. "We already export more seafood to these countries than we import from them," an authority spokeswoman says.
In contrast, the UK agricultural sector has widely been expected to fall victim to cheaper produce, if not sooner then later as the new member states modernise their farming practices.
A European Commission report estimates that new member states are responsible for the production of between 20% and 30% of Europe's cereals and oilseeds. And the NFU says it expects this proportion to increase significantly as farming develops and eventually present a major import threat.
But it can afford to take the long view, believing it will be some years before farming, particularly in the former Eastern bloc countries, will be any match for the efficient, sophisticated UK and western European industries.
As far as beef markets in the new EU-25 go, they will be manageable and there will be no major impact on the dairy markets, it adds.
The clear long-term threat to western European farmers stems from the financial impetus the EU will give the new members to overcome the problems of structural adjustment and lift them to western European standards.
In light of this, the NFU's Wilkinson warns that the UK must not become complacent. As the new member states watch their economies grow, buoyed by EU assistance, they are unlikely to hang back when it comes to building on any export opportunity that comes their way.