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Poland's letter to France: please say 'oui!'

About the author
Krzysztof Bobinski is the president of Unia & Polska, a pro-European think-tank in Warsaw. He was the Financial Times Warsaw correspondent (1976-2000) and later published Unia & Polska magazine.

We’ve all had the dream. The train we need to catch is standing at the station, just about to move off. But we keep getting held up and stay stuck on the platform as it moves away. That’s the way I feel about the referenda on the European Union’s constitutional treaty now taking place in various EU member-states.

The “yes” side has to win in each country holding a referendum (or parliamentary vote) for the treaty to go into force – in France (29 May) and in Holland (1 June) and in Denmark and in the United Kingdom and here in Poland (25 September) and … . But the “no” side, it seems, “only has to be lucky once”.

Convinced that the defeat of the treaty will mark a major blow for the union which Poland joined only twelve months ago I watch helpless as the Left in France gets it into its head that the treaty is aimed at its social model and thus threatens to vote “no”. The Dutch, meanwhile, have a collective nervous breakdown and set out to punish their politicians by also voting “no”. While the Danes and the Irish and the Portuguese bravely say they will go ahead with their referenda the British – even pro-Europeans among them – seem all too relieved not to have to have a referendum in the event of a French “no”. “The treaty ratification timetable will be dead,” says Denis MacShane, until recently Tony Blair’s gaffe-prone (and half-Polish) Europe minister.

Also by Krzysztof Bobinski in openDemocracy:

“Poland’s nervous ‘return’ to Europe” (April 2004)

“A stork’s eye view from Poland” (May 2001)

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Is it all inevitable? Can anything be done to influence campaigns in other countries which have a direct bearing on our future? Maybe public appeals? The Poles have emerged as the whipping-boy in the French campaign. Well, not all Poles – just the odd-job men and the builders and other handymen willing to do the work for a fraction of the pay that a Frenchman would ask.

Enlargement of the European Union to the east is apparently to blame for this threat to the French way of life. So Poland, after years of doing all the European Commission asked of it in the way of acquis communautaire preparations, and sailing into what it saw as a safe harbour after a couple of centuries of historical hard luck is now part of the problem? Do people in western Europe really think they were better off in a Europe divided by the “iron curtain” and living under a cold-war regime which threatened a nuclear holocaust if the leaders of the then superpowers thought fit to go to war?

The least we in Poland could do was to write an open letter explaining to the French that this constitutional treaty was about more than plumbers it was about the future of a uniquely successful project which has enabled people to live peacefully together. It has also provided those of us, who through “no” fault of their own, have had to put up with two particularly nasty totalitarianisms in the last century with a secure perspective of modernisation and growth. The usual suspects agreed to sign: film director Andrzej Wajda, writer Ryszard Kapuściński, Lech Wałęsa, the electrician and former president. The letter was duly published in Le Monde.

Contrary to the fears of those like Jacques Delors, the former head of the European Commission, who warned that the letter would only harm the pro-treaty cause, a few days later the “yes” campaign went back into the lead. Who is to say the views of almost all of Poland’s foreign ministers after 1989 didn’t help to reverse the trend?

Then, a phalanx of heavyweight German intellectuals – led by by Gűnter Grass and Jűrgen Habermas – hove into view with another Le Monde missive. “Does the majority of the French people really want to line up with the nationalists of the right and left. That would be a betrayal of reason which the French will in future be unable to forgive themselves for” they exclaimed incredulously.

It seemed that a dialogue was beginning to develop. Why shouldn’t the British join in? With the “no” campaign going full speed ahead and the “yes” camp demoralised by having the Blairites insist the campaign be put off till after the election, wouldn’t this be the moment to drop the French a line and raise the pro-European banner in the United Kingdom?

The Le Monde letter from Poland to France is here and in English translation here

But this is where the problems began. Almost everyone I contacted said it was a bad idea. There were two main arguments. A quite daft one was laid out by John Kay in the Financial Times: that while it was ok to vote “yes” in Britain, it would be even better to have the French themselves ditch the constitution; after that everyone would salvage the useful bits. The other, maybe more realistic, was that the French and the British dislike each other so much that any advice to vote “yes” would have the opposite effect and vice versa.

One committed pro-European in Britain wrote to me:

“Atavistic sentiments are such that, for example, if I were to read a letter from French people urging me to vote yes it would be the one thing that would tempt me to vote no. Rejection of “Anglo-Saxon” Europe is a feature of both the yes and the no campaign and, if I were a French ‘no’ campaigner I would use a letter from Brits to say ‘if the British want you to vote yes it’s got to be bad for you’. I know it should not be thus but mutual antipathy remains very strong.”

No letter from London urging the French to vote “yes” along the lines of the Polish or German message appeared. This is a pity. Nations (or rather some of their citizens) writing letters to nations is not a bad way of defining the project and telling ourselves why we want it to continue. The lack of contact between the various campaigns, the provincial nature of our national debates all shows we need to talk across frontiers if the European project is to survive.

The train may be slowly drawing away from the station but I still believe letter-writing has a future. In any event, we in Poland will be needing some letters to bolster our own “yes” campaign this autumn.


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