BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) -- The European Union ordered Polish authorities to recover subsidies pumped into two ailing shipbuilding companies Thursday, effectively forcing the privatization of the Baltic yards which were in the forefront of the country's struggle against Communism in the 1980s.
EU Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes said Poland could keep "viable future activities" at the Gdynia and Szczecin sites, but not necessarily in shipbuilding. She warned of future job losses and said the EU would help those made unemployed.
The shipyards, which employ thousands of workers, are currently kept in business only by hefty government subsidies, which have totaled 3.3 billion euros since 2002.
Following the EU's rejection of its plans to continue government aid, Poland has now committed to selling off the yards through an open tender by May, the EU said in a statement.
Polish shipyard workers -- led by the Solidarity trade union -- have protested several times outside EU headquarters in an effort to persuade Kroes to allow the aid which has kept the yards in business since 2002.
However, she ruled that government handouts constitute unfair competition with yards elsewhere in Europe.
The future of shipyards is an emotive issue in Poland, given the historic role played by workers in the Baltic Sea ports in the struggle against Communist rule in the 1970s and 1980s.
Kroes said the EU had yet to calculate how much of that must be repaid, but aid paid since Poland joined the EU in 2004 totals 2.147 billion euros.
Under the terms agreed with the Polish government, any potential buyers will not have to repay the subsidies because the state is expected to recover the money through the sale of the yards, the EU said.
"I'm confident that this solution will maximize opportunities for viable economic activity to continue at these historic sites, with good prospects for sustainable jobs," Kroes said.
In Poland, the head of the Solidarity trade union at the Gdynia shipyard said he hoped the deal would allow shipbuilding to continue in the Baltic Sea cites.
"This struggle to save the yards may end in success which means continuation of the shipbuilding profile and minimal losses in jobs," Dariusz Adamski, he told TVN24.
"It is important that the assets are bought by a buyer, preferably one buyer, who keeps the technology and allows us to continue making ships."
Kroes said the EU regulators had yet to take a decision on another shipyard in Gdansk -- the center of Solidarity's anti-Communist protests in 1980. The Gdansk yard has already been privatized and has received less government cash.
She said Polish government should present a restructuring plan for Gdansk for evaluation at EU headquarters.
Associated Press writer Monika Scislowska in Warsaw contributed to this report.